Pandemonium, Soho Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Recommended

Review

Pandemonium

3 out of 5 stars

Armando Iannucci’s satire on the British government’s pandemic response is funny but lacking the prescience of his best work

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Time Out says

How do you like your disgust? You could get it straight from the source by watching the Covid inquiry unfold slowly and shamelessly in real-time. Or you can get the same story of the pandemic and the ‘leaders’ who steered us through it in the form of a Restoration Comedy. 

And why not? Making his debut as a playwright, pedigreed satirist Armando Iannucci takes us back to really old-school satire, in search of the only way to ridicule the ridiculous which is more ridiculous than the ridiculous themselves. 

Spooling from a mock epic poem he wrote in 2021, and using some of the same lines, a five-strong cast recounts the bleak history of Boris Johnson’s premiership as if they are a troupe of seventeenth-century players. 

Director Patrick Marber, Iannucci’s old colleague on The Day Today and Alan Partridge, keeps the acting troupe motif going throughout as they grab wigs and other props to transform minimally into the many roles they each play. Rishi Sunak is Richer Sooner, ‘half man half coin’, Raab becomes Dominant Wrath with boxing glove permanently attached to his hand, while Paul Chahidi is Orbis Rex himself, mop-haired, convinced he is a literal god. ‘It’s true, and that’s the truth’, says Orbis a propos of nothing. 

The cast isn’t doing impressions of the real people, rather pushing everything – voice and movement – to absurd limits. Amalia Vitale does this especially brilliantly when she takes on the guise of Matt Hancock as a literally invertebrate pile of slime pretending to be human. 

It’s one of many mad moments that veer as far from the dry predictability of the Covid enquiry as possible. But Iannucci saves some time for other moods too. Sick with Covid, as Johnson hovers near hell, Faye Castelow’s Cummings delivers an unsettling monologue about sight and blindness. As Johnson faces the consequences of the Met Police, Sue Gray and the inquiry, he sits forlornly and mutters ‘I’m a god’ to himself once more. 

Not all of it zings. Where Iannucci’s other work has excelled is in the balance of satire with silliness. For every withering takedown of the political system or celebrity or whatever else is in his sights he’ll chuck in a daft pun or piece of nonsense - just think of Marber’s own erstwhile alter ego Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan and the brilliant stupidity of those scenes on The Day Today. 

This has the silliness, but there’s a problem with the satire. You do wonder whether the events of the last few years - global pandemic meets power-fixated goons, with hilarious consequences etc - are too absurd to satirise. Obviously people have been saying that forever, and credit to Iannucci for finding a form that fits the slightly unreal quality of recent political history. But where other Iannucci satire like ‘The Thick Of It’ seemed to predict much of the political omnishambles that followed, ‘Pandemonium’ is reactive. It’s after the fact, so what does it add? 

And besides all that, it doesn’t go far enough. Too much of the sixth-form sketch show about it. Yes they all end up writhing in the fires of hell, but somehow it’s not satisfying to see them meet their fates in an imaginary underworld. 

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£20-£58. Runs 1hr 30min
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