Here we are in the final week of what is a confusing and rather tedious Election: and what could be more pertinent than a play about socialist champion, Tony Benn: a man both feted and vilified but ultimately dubbed (as he says himself slightly disdainfully in the play) ‘A National Treasure’. This thought-provoking play, Tony’s Last Tape by Andy Barrett, is loosely based on Benn’s notable political diaries and his audio recordings. It outlines the struggle of an aged man who considers that maybe it is time to withdraw from the fight and to let others take over, but can’t quite let go. For more than 50 years, Tony Benn recorded everything around him. Today he has decided to make his last tape.
Giles Croft’s excellent production is set in Benn’s somewhat chaotic office, crammed with his own publications and with all manner of recording devices turned on – to which he dictates his thoughts and memories. Benn is a sad figure in tatty dressing gown and slippers– always with trademark pipe at hand and a huge mug of tea. Unable to sleep, he reminisces about his life, experiences and observations. He stops himself from time to time as he worries he is repeating himself and often refers to the frailty of old age and of loss (his brother lost in war time, his parents, his beloved wife). He bemoans his mistakes and imagines sadly how his life and career could have gone differently. But despite his sense of failure and his physical frailty his inner fire and conviction shine through, particularly as he recalls his finer moments and triumphs and the great people (often ordinary workers) he’s had the privilege to know, alongside those historical movements he so admired: the Suffragetes, Jarrow marchers and so on.. “Who wouldn’t want to be marching alongside them!?”
There are obvious parallels with (or a homage to?) Krapp’s Last Tape- a fondness for bananas and a sense of self-worthlessness and doubt. But there is the counterbalance of humour in Benn’s Last Tape which makes it less doom laden than Krapp. There are some funny moments too, not least when he refers to the ‘nightmare’ of ‘Blair’, ‘Kinnock’ and so on through the Labour leadership.
Philip Bretherton’s performance as Benn is excellent. He shows Benn to be a curious combination of contradictions: an aristocrat but man of the people; an opponent of all war – but at the same time a WW2 pilot. He portrays Benn in a sensitive yet powerfully thought-provoking way without over stating him as a caricature. He even manages to capture the slight whistle in Benn’s voice. It is quite something to hold a small intimate audience captive for 75 minutes without interval and he does this admirably.
Benn himself, a political war horse, fighting to the end, decides that he will do his last tape – but maybe tomorrow. And there we leave him. With Tony’s last tape you are left feeling bereft that we have lost something great: a passion and conviction that cannot be matched in this era of political “focus groups” and a party run like a “business class”. The audience, like me, must ask itself whether there is anyone left in this day and age with a genuine fire burning inside them raging against social injustice- or whether instead we suffer the political ‘playground’ Benn refers to earlier, crammed with meaningless soundbites, and completely out of touch with people ‘on the ground’.
Tony’s Last Tape leaves you overwhelmingly sad that this is entirely the case.