Andy Barrett’s new play at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, Tony’s Last Tape, attempts a daunting task.
It aims to chronicle the thoughts, experiences and emotions of one of the foremost Parliamentarians of the last 50 years, and a peace campaigner who also labelled as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ and a ‘national treasure’ – Tony Benn.
Barrett doesn’t attempt to provide a sweeping all-star cast multi- generational epic but instead a one-man show revolving around the humble tape recorder with fictional dialogue based on real events.
Tony Benn was famous for his copious diaries but also his cassette recordings of daily events in an audio diary form.
It is in this format that we meet an 87-year-old Benn played by Philip Bretherton (As time goes by, Coronation Street and Footballer’s Wives) at his home in June 2013 wearing an anti-poll tax t-shirt with his trademark pipe. He is ready to record his political epithet.
There are of course plenty of references to politics and politicians during this last tape primarily about Benn’s role as Labour MP for Bristol South East and Chesterfield from 1950 to 2001.
However there is a much more personal touch as Barrett depicts Benn addressing two of the most inspirational figures in his life on the tape.
One of these figures is his brother Michael who like Tony was in the RAF during the Second World War was tragically killed in 1944.
Benn addresses his dead brother directly throughout the play reminding him that he always tried his best to implement the better world they talked about so much once he went into politics after the war.
Benn’s American wife Caroline is the other figure that he addresses frequently on the tape.
Caroline, who was a famous educationalist, met Benn when they were both students at Oxford University in the late 1940s.
Benn is depicted recalling his proposal to Caroline just before she was to return to the United States and her death from cancer.
However what the play lacks is a clear focus or narrative as it jumps between events while assuming that the audience has a high level of knowledge about Benn’s life.
For example at the start of the play there is a joke about Benn having nightmares about previous Labour leaders.
While many will recall the Blair and Kinnock era the nature of Benn’s dispute with fellow left winger Michael Foot and the tension between Gaitskellites and Bevanites during the 1950s have been largely forgotten.
Despite the lack of structure many of the anecdotes that Barrett includes are witty and informative such as his trips to China and the USSR as well as his role in the development of Concorde as minster for Technology in the 1960s.
Perhaps even more relevant to contemporary audiences Barrett’s Benn reaffirms his opposition to the European Economic Community and its successor the European Union.
At a time when left wing eurosceptism is largely marginalised and voiceless, Benn articulates his opposition to the European project on a matter of democratic principle.
Tony’s Last Tape is emotional, witty, insightful and highly relevant not just in terms of Benn’s life but his continuing relevance to contemporary politics.
However perhaps it could have been more ambitious in terms of covering events in more depth.
While the concept of a last tape is a good one perhaps a one-man show could have been developed further in flashbacks involving other actors.
Bretherton however gives a convincing performance as Benn himself something that the Benn family themselves have commented on.
Tony’s Last Tape runs at The Omnibus Theatre, Clapham until 20 April.