Pity the poor writers of ‘Spitting Image’. In the months since this stage adaptation of the resurrected satirical TV puppet show premiered in Birmingham we’ve lost a Cabinet minister (Raab), a former Prime Minister (Johnson) and the leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon, who was then arrested.
Gamely, writers Al Murray, Matt Forde and Sean Foley – who doubles as director – feed a few new lines into this West End transfer, which features real-life puppets and pre-recorded voiceovers. But as the news cycle rolls oppressively on, the feeling lingers that this is a show permanently destined to be a little out of date.
Plot-wise, it’s a week before Charles’s coronation (see what I mean?) and the fabric of society – a pair of skid-smudged M&S pants – is in disrepair. We soon get into a routine of being asked to laugh at jokes which consist of saying the most obvious thing about a particular person. Charles calls in Tom Cruise (tiny, closeted) to repair the pants, and Cruise recruits a crack team including Angela Rayner (Northern), Idris Elba (Bond), Greta Thunberg (woke), Meghan Markle (woke and self-obsessed) as well as Tyson Fury and RuPaul for reasons best left unfathomed.
Meanwhile, a cabal of evil-doers led by Boris Johnson, alongside Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg and others, tries to thwart their plans. Oh, and it’s a musical – mostly reworked existing songs. Those obvious jokes are many and tiresome, and seem like an excuse to stuff as many familiar faces onto the stage as possible.
And yet there are moments when the satire is really quite thrillingly caustic. It’s hard to forget the image of Suella Braverman, looking like the girl from ‘The Exorcist’, giving herself an orgasm at the thought of stopping migrant boats; or there’s Carrie Johnson with talking nipples, dancing alongside a chorus line of giant penises whose urethras peep open and closed as they sing.
Forde, Foley and Murray save their deepest savagery for Sunak and Johnson. A rousing climax sees Thatcher resurrected, and Johnson and Sunak singing ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ in front of pictures of people who died during the pandemic, and you wonder why it can’t all be like that, with something to say, and a scathing way of saying it.
As a technical feat, wow. There’s deft choreography from Lizzi Gee (those penises!) and sharp video design from Nina Dunn, but really it’s the puppets that make the show, more than 100 of them, beautifully constructed, with 15 puppeteers doing a fantastic job of bringing those famous faces to life and making themselves disappear. Sometimes those puppets get absurd and profane and spittingly angry things to say. More often, like those penises, the satire flops.