Review by Daz Gale
Musicals about historical figures are always a bit of a gamble. For every Hamilton there is always a Stephen Ward so where would this brand new musical about former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi fit in? The swanky new Southwark Playhouse Elephant is hoping it will be a case of a former for their second production, and after the show that opened the glorious new theatre failed to captivate me on a personal level, I had high hopes for this one – particularly with the list of names attached to it. The question is would it be amore for me for Berlusconi?
Silvio Berlusconi is an Italian media tycoon turned politician who became Prime Minister of Italy under four governments. He was involved in a scandal for tax fraud where (spoiler alert) he was convicted. This world premiere musical attempts to cover his entire life from his rise to fame, his career change and his ultimate downfall in a narrative which jumps in time back and forth more than a series of Doctor Who.
There is a lot to unpack with Berlusconi so bear with me (this may well be the longest review I've ever written - make of that what you will). This is a bold and ambitious musical with a lot of strengths. However, most of these have a less strong element that complements (or works against) it. The biggest strength of the show is undoubtedly its stellar and impressive cast. Some instantly recognisable and accomplished names have gathered to bring this story to life and the talent that is bursting off the stage from this is mesmerising at times (though frustrating at others for reasons that will become clear).
Sebastian Torkia leads the cast as the titular Berlusconi. A clearly talented performer, he plays the role with a mischievous grin and a knowing wink to the audience (to whom he regularly breaks the fourth wall). Though at times his singing voice is impressive, it’s the comedic way he plays the role that feels at odds with the rest of his cast, feeling as if he has been give a different to script to the others and is in a completely different show altogether. Whether that is supposed to be a deliberate choice to represent Silvio’s disconnect with the real world was not clear but whatever the intent was did not translate to the stage or the audience as well as might have been hoped.
The other male roles in the show are fairly one note with McCallam Connell, John Conroy and Matthew Woodyatt playing multiple roles that fail to make a huge impact, while Gavin Wilkinson gets a baffling and uncomfortable moment as Vladimir Putin. It’s the women of the cast who really shine though with some truly stunning performances from an exceptional bunch of people.
Emma Hatton gets a star turn as Silvio’s ex-wife Veronica showing a vulnerability in her performance and once again showcasing some truly sensational vocals in solo numbers in both acts including the truly stunning 'Secrets and Lies'. Sally Ann Triplett is brilliantly scene-stealing as Silvio’s prosecutor Ilda while Jenny Fitzpatrick is an absolute standout in her turn as TV reporter and Silvio’s former lover Fama. The three of them also get the strongest musical number of the night, inexplicably performed early in the first act – showcasing vocals and harmonies for days. There is the sense that these women are used for laughs at times and can come across as inferior to Silvio, despite giving the superior performances. There is no sense of empowerment to their characters who don’t get the journeys they deserve.
The always exceptional Natalie Kassanga is bizarrely underused throughout, reduced to a nameless character for the majority of the musical, aside from one satisfying act two where she comes into her own as the character Bella and brings the house down with a rip-roaring musical number, seemingly making the rest of the time in the background all the worthwhile. Sadly the same can’t be said for Susan Fay who is dealt a cruel hand with her time as Silvio’s Heavenly mama meaning an understated performance which with better writing would have been emotional is played for laughs instead (possibly unintentionally).
The set design from Lucy Osborne is immediately impressive – making full use of the larger space in the new Southwark Playhouse, it is a glorious sight – played on multiple levels with trap doors and lots to have fun with. A great use of video design from Stanley Orwin-Fraser elevates this with some clever usage (though certain moments tend to cheapen the production) ensuring the whole thing is always visually stimulating. The video extends to live filming throughout, and unfortunately this led to some tech problems on press night including sync issues, the filming not showing at all and even an oversight at one part where the video design wasn’t replicated identically on each of the video screens. It might seem unfair to point out tech problems that won’t be there every night but the fairest way to write a review is to say what I saw on the night, and while this was an ambitious affair in terms of scale and production value, it didn’t always pay off in the way that would have been hoped.
The story, music and lyrics by Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan are a mixed affair. The music is consistently strong although some of the styles may be questionable. However, from a musical point of view it is regularly beautiful, particularly on the bigger ballads. Those quieter, more sensitive moments that dominated the first half of the first act led me to believe this was going to be a special show, so it was frustrating this level was unable to be matched throughout. As great as the music is, the lyrics are far less impressive. Predictable rhymes only existing to rhyme with swearwords give a sense of immaturity that doesn’t match the potential set by the music, lines such as “I’m the ValJean to her pound shop Javert” and “We’ll be caged, dining on porridge and schlong” are ill-advised at best while referring to somebody as an “unf**kable lardass” is perhaps the most cruel thing I have ever witnessed in a show – ironically politically incorrect for a show about a politician.
The biggest problem in Berlusconi is the story itself. It seemingly has no idea what it is or what it is trying to say. This results in a show which is tonally inconsistent and all over the place – its only consistency is in how confused it always is. Beautiful performances by the aforementioned women are completely undone by Silvio’s own exaggerated slapstick performance in what felt like could have been written for Harry Hill in panto. There seems to be a real lack of understanding for what would work in this show and translate well to the audience, resulting in a huge disconnect which, at best, never landed with an audience and, at worst, had the complete opposite effect. This is no more apparent than Silvio’s dead mothers song which rather than elicit an emotional response caused laughter among the audience, and had my head in my hands with sheer disbelief. References to seemingly random people including Dirty Den and Jimmy Carr in a show about Silvio Berlusconi were met with a response that can only be described as “What the f…” while “jokes” about Kevin Spacey and Prince Andrew also fell flat.
The bold production value isn’t always used to its best effect, with James Grieves direction seemingly failing to understand the layout of the audience and what people can actually see. One pivotal moment where Silvio falls to the floor can only be seen by the front row so all impact is lost. However, the use of such an unconventional stage must be admired and, in that respect, the direction is impressive.
What is incredibly disappointing about Berlusconi is how much potential it has. I was gripped in the first 10 minutes of the show, especially when Jenny, Emma and Sally Ann got their spine-tingling group performance. I thought to myself “If it can have something THIS good so soon, how good must the rest of the show be?” Sadly, this was a case of showing its cards too early as the rest of the show fell drastically short. Act one was more consistent of the two but act two was massively inferior, feeling far less together than the first act and seeing whatever seeds had been sown earlier coming undone to ridiculous effect as it plodded on until the end, making no sense and giving the audience no satisfaction whatsoever. It also suffers from being overlong and could definitely stand to lose 20 minutes.
This is a review that could have gone two ways. At the beginning of Berlusconi I expected this to be a glowing review. I held on to that hope throughout the first act but it became clear as the show progressed there was far too much work to be done to make this show coherent and enjoyable. That’s not to say it can’t get there – it has all the right elements; it just needs a Hell of a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning to give this show the prowess it deserves. The disappointment is made greater with the knowledge this production has such a fine group of performers not getting to use all of their talents in the way they could.
However, this is still a show boasting some great musical numbers and a story that could play out well if they could just sort out the tone of the show. If they don’t know exactly what this show should be, what hope is there for an audience rooting for it to succeed? It should be said this is the world premiere of the show and not every show can get it right first time – perhaps a little bit more workshopping and this could well be the next big thing. Berlusconi compares himself to Jesus Christ throughout the musical (sorry, opera?) but perhaps a more recent Andrew Lloyd Webber show would be more fitting. Who knows - maybe Bad Berlusconi could be Broadway bound in the near future?
Berlusconi plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant (the new one. Don’t go to the old Borough one as some did on press night) until 29th April. Tickets from https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/berlusconi/
Photos by Nick Rutter