Review by Daz Gale
After entertaining us on our TV screens for the best part of 40 years now, Spitting Image has made the leap to the stage with the show Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image Saves The World. While this show promises all of the shows trademark humour and some extra theatrical elements, there is always the risk that what works on screen might not necessarily transfer* to the stage as successfully. So did this translate well or was it a load of old spit?
For those not aware, Spitting Image is a British satirical series where puppets portray celebrities, politicians and royalty. Known for their near the knuckle humour, seemingly nothing is off limits. In this stage production Idiots Assemble, Tom Cruise is set the impossible mission by King Charles to save Great Britain. In doing so, he has to get together (or assemble) an eclectic bunch of celebrities. Basically, the script is thinner than the most tenuous panto and allows for a series of sketches to be loosely tied together with the loosest of narratives.
The puppets themselves are as brilliant as ever. Instantly iconic, Spitting Image has a distinct style and these are fantastically recreated on stage with notorious figures we know and love/hate played out with overly expressive faces such as Queen Consort Camilla’s constant laughter, Meghan Markles perma-smile and Greta Thunberg’s constantly serious face. These are moved on stage with a mixture of puppets holding them (sometimes hiding in plain sight, others not so much) and others with the puppeteers own bodies doubling for the characters whose faces are placed over their own. This mix of two differing styles felt slightly jarring and made it very difficult to get the escapism you would need to truly enjoy this.
The voices of the characters are performed by an expert team including Al Murray, Debra Stephenson and Luke Kempner. Disappointingly though, these are not only off stage but also pre-recorded. While it isn’t possible to get such in demand performers for every performance, something was lost by not having the voices performed live. Some of the voices are spot on while others not so much. For every flawless voice like that or Sir Ian McKellen, there is an underwhelming one such as a confused impersonation of RuPaul.
You have to spare a thought for the writers of this show. Since it was initially announced with the title The Liar King focused on Boris Johnson, we have had three Prime Ministers (as of this moment. That may of course change by the time I finish writing this review in 10 minutes) and two Monarchs. The writers have readily admitted they had to throw away 3 entire scripts due to the ever shifting landscape of politics and the world itself, and sadly that is all too noticeable. What we have here is a mix of differing ideas that don’t gel together at all, creating an inconsistent and confused show. Elements of the original idea are clearly still there with a brilliant Lion King sequence complete with characters making their entrances through the audience. This is a show that is clearly being updated daily as the world changes with Nicola Sturgeon’s characters lines being amended to reflect her sudden resignation.
Perhaps this is one of the biggest issues with Idiots Assemble. On TV, they can write and produce an episode reflecting on the weeks events. With a big stage show such as this, they are too confined by what they have planned. As the world is increasingly uncertain, these limitations have only sabotaged them as the show doesn’t have enough scope to fill out its potential.
The writing in itself is mixed. Regularly funny but never hilarious enough past a very short chuckle, it also falls victim to some underperforming jokes that were met with a deathly silence. Tonally, the whole thing is a bit of a mess with one ill advised sequence showing Volodymyr Zelenskyy fighting in Ukraine feeling really ill advised. Spitting Image are known for their relentless piss taking of anyone and everyone and even say this is not for the easily offended. I would never call myself somebody who is easily offended and love an inappropriate joke with the best of them. However, the use of homophobic and racial slurs in this production was despicable – particularly given the seemingly increasing victimisation of minority groups in recent months. If you have to resort to damaging slurs to elicit a cheap laugh from your audience, perhaps you should leave the comedy writing to somebody else?
There are certain moments in Idiots Assemble that are far more successful. Portraying Suella Braverman as something from The Exorcist was an inspired move and a great reflection of her own twisted nature. These provided some of the greatest laughs of the evening, as did Greta Thunberg’s tongue-in-cheek characterisation. Perhaps the most spot on character and a much needed spot of light relief after having to endure Vladimir Putin tap-dancing was a note-perfect portrayal of the Nations sweetheart Alison Hammond. Special mention has to go for the recurring joke of Keir Starmer demanding a simple yes or no answer, which didn’t fail to make me laugh every time.
What Spitting Image has always done well is satirising politics and this is one of the better elements of the stage show. Everybody from Boris Johnson, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher gets a look in. We also get cameos from Matt Hancock, Jacob Rees-Mogg and an appearance from Liz Truss as brief as her time as Prime Minister. There are also some great jokes at the expense of our Royal Family with the publicity shy Harry and Meghan a permanent fixture on the stage… even if at times Harry does feel like a bit of a spare part.
The production value in itself was decent with Alice Powers set design allowing for a lot of fun at the hands of Nina Dunns video design and Tim Mitchells lighting. The attempts to make the whole thing more theatrical were less successful with the musical numbers more often than not underwhelming. After the first joke of a Queen song performed in part by the late Queen, we really didn’t need two more Queen numbers throughout the show – let’s save that for We Will Rock You, hey? Two numbers from Cabaret also filled the show though ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ played for laughs showed a distinct lack of understanding for the number – though that shouldn’t come as a surprise for a show that has Adolf Hitler complaining he’s been replaced by Nigel Farage.
Spitting Image has delighted audiences on TV for decades. I myself have always loved watching the show, regularly having it on when I was a kid even though all the Political references went over my head. The recent revival was always hit and miss with its jokes and this stage adaptation, I’m sorry to say, is more of the same. In fact, it’s more miss than hit. The limitations to a pre-determined script and staging choices for the puppets struggled to translate on stage in the same way it does on screen, leaving me thinking they would be better off leaving this as a much loved (albeit divisive) TV show.
While the production in itself is decent and there are some real funny moments, the whole narrative feels lost while some questionable inclusions left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I wanted to love Idiots Assemble: Spitting Inage Saves The World but unfortunately I found the whole thing a bit too hard to swallow.
Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image Saves The World plays at Birmingham Rep until 11th March. Tickets from https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/spitting-image-live/
Photos by Mark Senior