From Eva Peron to Tony Blair, plenty of musicals have been written about world leaders, and the latest to open is at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, telling the story of a corrupt perma-tanned president who made his fortune in real-estate. No, it’s not Donald Trump, but Silvio Berlusconi, though this new musical does paint Silvio as the blueprint for populist leaders.
“I am the Jesus Christ of politics” declares Berlusconi in the opening number, the musical’s only really memorable song. We learn, albeit in a very roundabout way, that Berlusconi was a singer on cruise ships, before joining his father’s construction firm, starting a media empire, and becoming the President of Italy.
Despite much flag waving, Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan’s musical feels about as Italian as the Super Mario Brothers, and there’s absolutely nothing (other than the flags) to suggest to the audience that this is in fact Italy. While awaiting trial for tax fraud in 2012, Berlusconi tells us he’s to write the Opera of his life, and for a second the vastly differing opening two scenes, could be explained away by the fact that this was in fact Berlusconi writing his own history.
But no, we get a flashback to 1947, then one other (no time given) and apart from that the idea is largely forgotten. So, if this isn’t the story of Berlusconi’s life, what is it? A story of how power corrupts? How the population can be manipulated? An expose of the man’s many immoral deeds? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these, but the truth is it’s very difficult to work out what this musical, directed by James Grieve, is hoping to achieve.
It tries very hard to be a comedy, and granted it’s a certain type of humour that will appeal to some, but not all. The problem is it tries to be serious as well. There’s a really nice ballad sung by Veronica (Emma Hatton) early on, but it follows some kind of wild fever dream, so it’s not actually clear what Veronica is singing about; it feels like a waste of Hatton’s talents.
Similarly, there’s an incredible solo number from Bella (Natalie Kassanga), but the song is essentially about the trauma the character has faced as a result of Berlusconi’s sexual inappropriateness – these were called “sexual shenanigans” in an earlier courtroom scene in order to facilitate just one of countless forced rhymes. The meaning of these songs are lost because of the farce of the rest of it, Me Too moments mixed with jokes about Amanda Knox and Jimmy Carr just don’t work.
You never quite know what’s going to come next in Berlusconi, will it be another visit from his dead mother, a finger puppet, a love-in with a topless Vladimir Putin, it reaches the point where nothing surprises. The mammoth set leaves little room for the cast, so there’s not much in the way of choreography. Indeed when the actors aren’t trudging up and down the steep marble steps, they are underneath the set pushing body parts through hatches. If you’re a fan of hand-acting, this is the musical for you.
One of the characters is a news reporter, so we have a camera person who comes on to the set and the picture is broadcast on to the back wall and several TV screens. It would have been very effective, had it worked. Several times the picture failed to project and the cast were left staring at a blank wall, twice the feed was switched on early giving us a view of the audiences feet (presumably the camera was sitting on the floor somewhere) and on more than one occasion when the projection did work, there was so much haze you couldn’t actually see anything anyway.
It’s not all bad, there are some fantastic performances within Berlusconi. As the titular character Sebastien Torkia is magical, just the right amount of sleaze, charm and charisma that has the audience warming to Berlusconi just as much as the Italians did when they voted him into power.
This muddled musical struggles on nearly every front, the songs aren’t memorable enough and the script seems to want to be everything and nothing all at once. Just like populist politicians, this musical promises a lot, but consistently fails to deliver.