Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • THE MADNESS OF GEORGE DUBYA • Pleasance Theatre • 2003

logoroguesJustin Butcher is on a roll. His play Scaramouche Jones went on a UK tour in 2002 starring Pete Postlethwaite, with a world tour hoped for this year. His updating of the Hippolytus/Phaedra legend, Breaking Strain, premièred at Theatro Technis last October where it enjoyed a sell-out run, and his recent play on radio The Man on the Pillar was voted BBC Radio Pick of the Day in The Guardian, The Times and the Radio Times. Butcher’s latest is a response to the growing threat of war. The Madness of George Dubya: Strangelove Revisited, written in three days and rehearsed in six, has recently been engendering laughter, cheers and applause from London audiences.

Take Dr Strangelove, The Madness of George III, and several Tom Lehrer songs, wrap it around war on Iraq and you have The Madness of George Dubya. There is the mad American general (Richard Leaf) in charge of a US air base in Britain, his British sidekick, Group Captain Windbreak (Andy Havill), two airborne American pilots (Jonah Russell and Jamie Bower) waiting and waiting for the order to attack or return, and assorted British and American officials. Dubya (Thomas Arnold) takes centre stage, closeted in a bunker – for safekeeping, you understand – dressed in pyjamas and clutching to his bosom an enormous teddy bear. His counterpart, played with admirable economy by Nicholas Burns, is ‘Tony Blear’. Cherie has taught Tony how to breathe in times of crisis and every so often the character turns away from the furore to compose himself, and our laughter increases with every breath. This is not an ‘impression’ such as Rory Bremner’s: Burns provides just enough and no more of the tics and the head turns to show, interestingly, more of a man than we ever get to see from the real Prime Minister.

Satire is a rare commodity on stage at present, unless you count Bremner’s recent appearance in the West End along with Johns Bird and Fortune, and it is refreshing to see this instant reaction, undoubtedly updated as the days pass, to the mess engulfing the world. The play first opened at Theatro Technis before transferring to the Pleasance on 11th February. After a shaky start with low energy levels and lack of projection during the first two scenes the night I saw it, the piece picks up considerably at the entrance of Lindsay Ellis as ‘Yasmina the Cleaner – a very nice girl’, sung with gusto by Ellis and company. Yasmina is so nice that she actually runs the local terrorist cell, simply waiting for the opportunity to blow herself to kingdom come. She high kicks her way around the stage and up onto the desks, opening her overalls to reveal the arsenal encircling her hips.

As in Doctor Strangelove, the mad General Kipper – for whom war is the ultimate buzz – orders an attack on primary Iraqi targets in advance of any unanimous decision. This brings our two hapless, disbelieving pilots to the fore as they struggle for confirmation by trying to decode the order with a code book previously ripped to shreds by one of the pilots whose stomach has been somewhat troublesome of late. Windbreak, a typically ineffectual British officer (a straight, Rattigan-like performance from Andy Havill that could slot neatly into Flare Path and is here the funnier for it) has to deal with the fall-out, and when the general – the only one to know the code for halting the attack – shoots himself dead in a sealed room, we have to wonder whether time is going to run out before Windbreak is able to pass the news on to Downing Street.

Although, ultimately, the situation is ‘resolved’ (it would be churlish to reveal how), and although it is clear that Butcher’s aim is to show the absurdity of such circumstances and the reasons not to go to war, we are confronted by our past dealings with Iraq – not just by the fact that we sold arms to Saddam but other highly questionable decisions from our history. This goes a little way to explain things from an Iraqi’s perspective. It gives you pause for thought, if nothing else.

Fast-moving, occasionally confusing, The Madness of George Dubya is a show that can pick you up from your despair about the world by making you laugh, confirm or, perhaps, alter your opinions a shade, and is a must. Sadly, the run ends at the Pleasance this evening although there is talk of a possible transfer to the Arts Theatre. If the powers-that-be have any sense, they will ensure its transfer.

Sarah Vernon © 2003

Originally published on R&V 23-02-03

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