Let me be clear, as politicians like to say before they launch into something entirely unhelpful and counter to whatever they say afterwards. It is a great feat to create and stage an entirely new sung-through musical that isn’t based on an existing film or franchise. To that end, ‘Berlusconi’ writers Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan deserve huge credit, as does Southwark Playhouse – long a reliable venue for small-scale musical theatre – for programming it.
But let me be even clearer: ‘Berlusconi’ is a big old mess. It’s ‘Evita’ meets ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’ but without the good tunes of the former and the profane, biting satire of the latter. It’s an onslaught of songs – so many songs – which go nowhere and add nothing.
There is a vague conceit: as he faces a trial for tax fraud in 2012, the eponymous ex-Italian PM, media mogul and ex-owner of AC Milan decides to write an opera about his life. Whether what we’re watching is that opera remains unclear. Anyway, out comes Silvio Berlusconi on a huge marble-effect set with three narrow strips of stage at different heights, which seriously limits the choreography that can happen, and means James Grieve’s production ends up nervously static with a lot of front-on singing.
It also means that the focus is almost entirely on the music. Most of the songs sound like Andrew Lloyd Webber redos, a bit of pop and a bit of rock, while the lyrics come in streams of rhyming couplets: ‘When it comes to women it’s no secret that I’m smart / Get inside their knickers and you get inside their heart’.
See, it is trying to be funny, but it’s never quite clear who or what we’re meant to be laughing at. Vaughan and Simmonds try to turn Berlusconi into a stand-in for subsequent populist political strongmen, with his accusers templates for their successors, but that just hollows the characters out. It means Sebastien Torkia doesn’t really know how to play Berlusconi, nor does he look anything like him. He leers and beams a big smile, but there’s nothing to latch onto.
Same with the three women who provide the grown-up side of the musical: Berlusconi’s ex-wife Veronica, his ex-girlfriend Fama and the prosecutor Ilda who brings him down. There’s some strong vocal work from Sally Ann Triplett as Ilda, but a couple of ropey voices too. When these women come on, it’s with sad, serious faces to tell us that sexual harassment is bad.
And that’s the biggest issue: the show has no idea where it’s trying to take us. There’s no plot, no character development, nothing driving the show forwards. It’s just song after song after song, each of which outstays its welcome.
And yet… glimmers of something great peek through the fog, especially the brilliant, breezy duet between Berlusconi and Gavin Wilkinson’s shirtless Putin, done as a dainty love song. Why couldn’t every song have form and purpose like that one?
Just when you think the onslaught of songs is over, there’s a final number, a hideously po-faced anthem imploring us to ‘be careful who you vote for’. If the show had found any way to make that pretty obvious message clear in any of the other songs, this annoying little kicker should have been entirely unnecessary. Instead, all the other songs are.