Review: Tony's Last Tapes, Omnibus Theatre

I’ve often wondered what politician, writer and diarist Tony Benn would make of the UK’s current political crisis (or crises). Read between the lines of Andy Barrett’s play Tony’s Last Tape at the Omnibus Theatre and you might find a clue as to what Benn might have thought. Barrett’s play sees Philip Bretherton on stage alone, as an aged Benn who’s struggling to sleep because he can’t think of an inspiring, funny and worthy anecdote for yet another colleague’s funeral.  

Directed by Giles Croft, Tony’s Last Tape doesn’t present Benn’s finest hours. Instead, it presents his final and frailest hours as we watch a sad widower mourn his wife, his life and, arguably, his ideology. Barrett’s complicated script revisits the highs and lows of Benn’s career in between the dithering old man’s random recollections and rediscoveries of treasures among his piles of hoarded diaries, tapes and junk from local charity shops.  

Rachael Jack’s set design is very effective as books, papers and tapes are stacked on and around Benn’s desk, bookcase and filing cabinet, ready for him to fumble through them, searching for what exactly he’s not quite sure. Some of the most moving moments come when Benn talks to and remembers his wife, Caroline, where his thoughts seem profoundly clear. When it comes to remembering his political career there is a lot of laughter, from him and the audience, but there also seems to be frustration at failing to understand where he went wrong and why he never became Prime Minister. The show is full of inside jokes for hardcore Labour Party and Benn fans as many of the gags were hilarious to a few but seemed to go over the heads of many, myself included.

Bretherton’s performance is impressive. Not only does he imitate Benn for 75 minutes but he really excels at playing Benn doing impressions of his famous colleagues. Bretherton and Barrett’s version of Benn is definitely caricatured but it’s funny and relatively entertaining nonetheless.

Now five years since Benn’s death, most of his life was before my own but I’ve always admired him. Perhaps that’s because I’ve only ever heard him in sound bites. Watching and listening to a version of him for over an hour, however, as he prattles about his office eating bananas and smoking a pipe, may have slightly tinged my memory of Benn. Yet the play certainly presents some interesting ideas about legacies and ageing.

Tony’s Last Tape isn’t for everyone but Barrett’s play offers the public a new perspective on the life of Tony Benn. Whether it’s a fair representation or not is up for debate.

Tony’s Last Tape is playing Omnibus Theatre until 20 April. For more information and tickets, see the Omnibus Theatre website.