Andy Barrett's new one act play 'Tony's Last Tape' has a few similarities with Samuel Beckett's play 'Krapp's Last Tape'. Both the playwright's names end with a double T, both plays reference the obsessive documenting of a full life through tape machines, and both have a single old man in a scruffy dressing gown as the hero. Plus at some point both heroes pull out a banana from a drawer and eat it. The banana that is – not the drawer.
This act of the eating the banana happens early on in Tony's Last Tape and there were a few knowing visual and verbal nods in the packed Neville Studio audience at this reference. In fact the whole play is about referencing a personal past and in many of the audiences' minds and political leanings – reverence. For the subject was not Krapp but the late Tony Benn, a divisive Labour politician. The rapt Nottingham audience appear to be made up, almost entirely, of Labour supporters enjoying the jokes and the wit of a political man. Barrett's new play is especially commissioned by Nottingham Playhouse as part of their Power and Politics season.
Throughout the play we learn that Benn was born in 1925 and christened Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, a set of names he grew up to dislike and much preferred to be plainly called Tony Benn. In his working life he served as a Labour politician and member of Parliament for 47 years and his political bias was to the far left.
Actor Philip Bretherton plays Benn brilliantly in this studio based production. The play is set in a writing room at Benn's home, a cluttered mess of books, files and papers crammed on a solid looking set of bookshelves and an equally cluttered desk at which the protagonist often sits and scrabbles about in its deep drawers. Ostensibly, Bretherton as Benn is there in a private hour to record another section of his memories onto various tape machines all running simultaneously – a loop to loop on top of the book shelves and two cassette recorders on the desk itself. The random nature of his taped expositions cover his opinions of former politicians with whom he worked or opposed, the various strikes he supported, his time as an MP for Bristol South East and his Socialistic motivated trips to Russia and to China. Bretheron puts all these across in such a fascinating and impassioned way through his interpretation of Andy Barrett's writing and the direction of Giles Croft that, even if you haven't a great interest or knowledge of politics, it still very much engages as a play.
Saying that, it is not all about national politics and one man's experience of socialism. We hear too about Benn missing his wife Caroline who died in the year 2000 and he amusingly refers to his own lack of DIY skills in the home. We get a practical example at one point late into the play where the actor Bretherton has to gingerly clamber up on top of his desk in order to change a light bulb. Even as he did so a joke without an answer popped into my head “How many Labour politicians does it take to change a light bulb?” Like any good researcher I found an answer. “None, they do not have a policy for that.”
We also hear of his time as young man in the RAF – a subject which is weaved cleverly into the story and often serves to illustrate other subjects through the viewpoint of a daring young pilot. Throughout the play Philip Bretherton embodies the dogged spirit of this political radical that had more compassion for the people he served than the political personalities he served with – with a few exceptions such as PM Jim Callaghan.
In short we come away with a picture of a complex impassioned man, a vegetarian, a pipe smoker and a self confessed drinker of far too much coffee. We too discover that after retirement from politics and endless writing of published diaries and memoires he was taken up as a contemporary hero by the young and considered a man with a great sense of humour and personal vision.
'Last' is an ambiguous word. It can mean most recent as well as ultimate. At the very end of the play we discover the meaning of this word in relation to the play's title. In Barrett's superb script the actor as Benn considers death and the often unknown causes thereof. He says that his own death might be from cancer, from a heart attack, natural causes or even potassium poisoning from eating far too many bananas. In gentle defiance he eats yet another banana and on departing the stage considers what 'Last' for him actually means. But that would be telling. It's probably on one of his tapes.
Tony's Last Tape played at Neville Studio Nottingham Playhouse until 28th February
Review originally published by The Public Reviews 27th February
Photo credits Robert Day