'Corbyn the Musical' Is a High School Play for Britain's Political Elite

As the Tories tear each other apart, it feels like the satire we didn't really need right now.

by Oscar Rickett
14 April 2016, 11:45am

Martin Neely as Jeremy Corbyn

There's a sex scene in the new show, Corbyn the Musical, in which protagonists Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, on a pilgrimage to East Germany in the 1970s, get down to the business of getting down. Tearing at each other's clothes, Corbyn, gripped by lust, bellows of the need to abolish the gender pay gap. Oh Jeremy, the audience laughs, stop banging on and start banging. Give the socialism a rest and give Diane what she needs!

This musical comedy, which began on Wednesday night at the Waterloo East Theatre in London, has arrived at a divisive moment in British politics and at an awkward time for Corbyn the Musical. With the Conservative government seemingly at war with the British people and with itself, putting on a show that satirises Jeremy Corbyn feels a bit like worrying that the band playing on the deck of the Titanic is a bit out of tune.

In the past few months alone, the government has cut taxes for the better off while cutting benefits for disabled people, a move branded "unfair" by Iain Duncan Smith, who resigned and suggested his party no longer cares about people who don't vote for it. Health Minister Jeremy Hunt remains locked in a battle to the death with junior doctors, his dream of an NHS run by private companies and staffed by automaton, workaholic insomniacs still alive. And then there's David Cameron, the Panama Papers and Britain's continued love affair with offshore banking.

So as I watched boring Jezza and saucy Diane go at it on stage, I couldn't help but imagine the flashback Tory frontbench equivalent: David Cameron and Theresa May on a corporate junket in Reagan's America, or perhaps Pinochet's Chile. May whispering about extending indefinite sentencing in detention centres and building a wall across the English Channel as she unbuttons Dave's shirt. Dave talking firmly about the need for further spending cuts before reeling off a list of semi-invented statistics as he lies back and thinks of pigsties.

Satire is meant to punch up, they say, and the British theatre is not short of political work right now. Corbyn the Musical meanwhile is more like a comforting school play for the political establishment. Its preview got a good review in the Telegraph. Andrew Neil was in the audience. There were Twitter-related jokes at the expense of Guardian columnist Dawn Foster and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez. There are jokes about Durham students not being as clever as Cambridge students. There are jokes about Corbyn not being clever because he didn't go to Cambridge (the writers of Corbyn the Musical went to Cambridge). At one point, a group of chaps in front of me cheered the mention of Dulwich College, a private school in south London.

The action is split between a future in which Jeremy Corbyn has become prime minister and must deal with the threat of a Russian nuclear strike and a past in which he and Diane Abbott tour East Germany, where they meet a young KGB agent called Vladimir Putin, who promptly falls in love with Corbyn (Vladimir Putin is gay). Jeremy is fond of Vladimir too, but it's not his body he's after, it's his politics. He wants to defect, Vladimir wants sex but is left with a broken heart that turns him into the camp, vengeful homophobe we all know so well.

This all goes on for over two hours.

Along the way, we meet a white actor playing a character called Hassan, complete with large clip-on beard and what appeared to be a bandana, as well as the sex-obsessed, Shakespeare- and Latin-spouting Boris Johnson. There's also a scene-stealing, wheelchair-bound Tony Blair, who can't give up his war mongering and wants Corbyn to kill Sir John Chilcot. In one of the show's best moments, Blair grasps at a cheque waved in front of him by Putin, before following that cheque out the door.

Martin Neely as Corbyn and Natashe Lewis as Diane Abbott

Rupert Myers, who wrote the show with Bobby Friedman, has bizarrely compared Corbyn to Darth Vader, but the musical's main joke at its hero's expense is not that the Labour leader is some kind of dark arch-villain, but that he is a naïve bore who's also a bit stupid (reminder: he didn't go to Cambridge). This naïvety – basically the belief that life could be other than a tooth and claw battle to the death – leads to catastrophe.

It's a "get real" mania that has reached pretty impressive heights in real life recently. Speaking in the Commons debate brought about by the Panama Papers, Tory grandee Sir Alan Duncan, a former oil trader, attacked David Cameron's critics and warned that if they won, the House of Commons would be populated by "low achievers, who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and who know absolute nothing about the outside world". Ah, the "outside world", where dealing with your offshore accountant is just a mundane fact of everyday life.

In the final analysis, it seems as though the writers have ended up getting Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps kindly, naïve, dogmatic Jez got under their skin, because in the end, while Boris Johnson, Blair and Putin come off as irredeemable caricatures, Jez turns into something almost approximating a hero, a man who believes in social democracy and the human capacity for good.

In the show, these qualities are satirised, but while much of the audience might have been sitting there thinking, "The idea of this absurd little Commie becoming PM is enough to make me throw up all over my Churchill biographies," I left the theatre thinking that, if they could just stop being so afraid of the rules and embrace a little peace, love and understanding, the creators of Corbyn the Musical might just end up singing, "Jez we can" come the next election.


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