Review by Daz Gale
If you're looking for something different than a pantomime or yet another version of A Christmas Carol to get you into the festive spirit, how about a story about Boris Johnson and the pandemic years? Before you scoff that doesn't sound very jolly, remember they are legendary for their parties. This forms the heart of Pandemonium - the first play from Armando Iannucci which is now enjoying a world premiere at Soho Theatre but would its attempts to put the Tory in our recent history be enough to win a willing audience over or is it still all too soon?
If you are unfamiliar with the work of Armando Iannucci, political satirism is a staple of his writing with The Thick Of It and Veep two of his most loved shows. In Pandemonium, he tells the story of Boris Johnson (or Orbis as he is known here) in his eventful years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (or Albion) and the, shall we say, less-than-ideal way he handled the pandemic. Poking fun at the absurdity of some of the unbelievable and horrific true events that took place under his leadership while not undermining the severity of the situation or making light of the many who lost their lives during this time is a hard balance to get right. For the most part, this isn't a problem in Pandemonium.
If you’ve ever wondered what a William Shakespeare play about Boris Johnson and his army of evil minions would look like, look no further. Armando’s trademark wit and intelligence in his writing is clear to see throughout with its over-the-top Shakespearean style allowing for some great gags both visually and in the writing, particularly when a polarising style jolts you from the tried and tested one you are becoming accustomed to. Some of the greatest jokes are in the terrific wordplay on people’s names with Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock all getting hilarious twists which I won’t spoil here. In a speedy 80 minutes single act, not every joke lands, and some sequences are far funnier than others, but you can be confident you are never far from the next laugh. While the approach to the subject may feel unconventional, it doesn’t take long to grow on you and eventually becomes infectious.
All the roles are performed by a cast of five, known as The Pandemonium Players. All taking on several roles, Paul Chahidi dons the messy blonde wig to give us his best Boris though refreshingly not attempting an impression of his voice. He is joined by Faye Castelow, Debra Gillett, Natasha Jayetileke, and Amalia Vitale who all show fantastic comedic timing and versatility as they take on everyone from politicians, Gods, TV presenters, and foul-mouthed pensioners. The camaraderie between the five performances draws an obvious comparison to another ensemble role wowing the West End, the unstoppable Operation Mincemeat. While admittedly this production hasn’t quite met that level of brilliance as yet, whereas that show started from humble beginnings, it isn’t against the realms of possibility to expect this could do similar things as it continues to adapt and grow.
Patrick Marber’s direction takes Armando’s writing and runs with the silly factor to bring a sense of slapstick, farce, and even panto in some of the characters. One of the funniest is the recurring side character based on Matt Hancock, this time imagined as a slime monster – so pretty close to the real thing. As he brilliantly tries to blend in with real humans by announcing his movements, he also gets some highlights with some poor unsuspected audience members (if you sit in the front row, prepare to make a new friend).
The biggest laugh came from a memorable sequence involving Liz Truss. While her time on stage was very brief, it was befitting of the shortest ruling Prime Minister in history and pulled its punches more successfully than anything she did in her short and terrifying reign. A surprisingly powerful and even moving ending brings the focus back to the victims of the pandemic and culminates with a crucial message about what to do in the next election… whenever that may be.
It would be very easy for Pandemonium to make a wrong move and feel mean-spirited or ill-advised considering we are barely out of the Pandemic and still feeling the repercussions of the last three years. However, in the expertly skilled writing of Armando Iannucci, this isn’t a concern and instead manages to make audience members laugh while never diminishing those who suffered. Truth be told, the show is a little rough around the edges but that ultimately adds to its charm. As a new work, it has no shortage of potential though currently feels unfinished in its current form. I have no doubt this will continue to improve and look forward to following it on its journey. You may not find yourself quite having a party watching Pandemonium… though you can always lie and say you did.
Pandemonium plays at Soho Theatre until 13th January. Tickets from sohotheatre.com
Photos by Marc Brenner