This review was originally written for West End Frame
“Yes, it’s a joke. Yes, it’s a political party”, asserts Samuel James’ Screaming Lord Sutch in James Graham’s new play Monster Raving Loony. And with those eight words, he captures the spirit of the Monster Raving Loony Party and the fiercely paradoxical tone of its subversive, satirical, and essential voice in British politics. Graham’s play, which takes a kaleidoscopic look at Sutch’s life through a set of homages to famous British comedy shows, is exuberantly daft throughout, but at its heart lies a serious point about the need for mockery in our political system. It is both seriously funny and, funnily, serious.
One doesn’t need an in-depth knowledge of all British comedy since the Second World War to enjoy Monster Raving Loony, but it probably helps. In just over 100 minutes, the six-strong cast chart Sutch’s journey from North London whippersnapper to beloved hero of anti-establishment thought everywhere by presenting moments of his life in the style of a host of classic British comedies, from Tommy Cooper to Alan Partridge. His philandering as a young man is shown in a farcical pastiche of Fawlty Towers and his party meetings proceed like a scene from Blackadder. You get the idea.
Simon Stokes’ production is raucous and high-spirited. There are awful jokes aplenty, comedy chase routines galore, and copious amounts of audience participation throughout. At one point the audience – already sporting party hats doled out at the entrance – are handed a kitchen’s worth of pots and pans and the whole auditorium becomes one giant skiffle band. Those lucky enough to sit near the front get served cups of tea. Consolation for those that go tea-less might be found in the audience-wide raffle.
The side effect of this warm, friendly atmosphere is that some of the less funny sketches are forgiven. No-one could like both the forced silliness of Monty Python and the sophisticated satire of Yes Minister, so cramming them both into the same play is bound to leave some sections of the audience unaffected sporadically. But Stokes’ cast power through regardless, effervescent to the last, and most are willing to overlook the weaker material – Samuel James’ Alan Partridge impersonation lacks something, as does his Blackadder – in their appreciation of the stronger – an Only Fools And Horses skit is superb, as is Joe Alessi’s Michael Parkinson.
Underneath all this caricature and parody, though, there seems to be a serious message struggling to make itself heard. Sutch’s insistence that insanity was the sanest reaction helped to define political apathy for decades, and his presence on platforms alongside Prime Ministers including Wilson and Thatcher sounded an anarchic note of protest that was – and still is – essential to democracy. In Monster Raving Loony, this point is only brought to the fore in an unexpectedly moving conclusion; for the most part, it is drowned out between Benny Hill and The Goon Show.