Writer Ed King / Production Photographer Mark Senior
“The world’s biggest movie star,” Tom Cruise is back in Birmingham saving Great Britain six nights a week, with an A-list ensemble of do-gooders including Ru Paul, Tyson Fury, Stormzy, Idris Elba, and Greta Thunberg.
And he’ll need all the help he can get, facing a quack team of super villains led by schoolboy Rishi Sunak, a suitably orange jumpsuit wearing Donald Trump, and an elongated Jacob Rees-Mogg grasshopper.
But don’t worry mum, I’m not back on the blotter acid.
The Birmingham Rep stage is currently set for Idiots Assemble – Spitting Image Saves The World, as the live production of Luck and Flaw’s ground-breaking puppet based political satire TV show enjoys its world première until mid-March.
Written by Matt Forde, Al Murray, and the Rep’s own Sean Foley – the latter also sitting in the Idiots Assemble director’s chair – the colloquially called ‘Spitting Image Live’ is laugh out loud funny from start to finish.
My apologies for the cliché but that is precisely what I did. From the moment a diminutive Sir Ian McKellen stood in the spotlight to open the show, and probably much to the annoyance of those to my left and right. Pun intended.
Hanging on to the time honoured tradition of good versus evil, the Idiots Assemble narrative is that simple. Tom Cruise and his cohorts are called upon by King Charles, a cocaine fuelled Paddington Bear, and a Carling can swigging Camila to save Great Britain, which a TV mounted Hugh Edwards eloquently informs us “…is fucked. Really fucked.”
But for every yin there’s a yang, with Rishi Sunak joined by such lovely foam folk as a tousle haired Boris Johnson, clunky transformer Elon Musk, and Rupert Murdoch (evil enough, right?) who are all hell bent on ensuring their pernicious turpitude goes undefeated.
And worthy of a line all to herself, there’s Suella Braverman… whose Linda Blair based caricature is so gloriously perfect it’s in danger of making the worst thing to hit the Home Office since Covid almost endearing. If it ever comes up for charity auction, I’m selling a kidney.
Plus, we welcome back a few stalwarts from the original Spitting Image. And if you need a clue, think suits and cigars. And who might complain: “but fuck one crazy egg lady…”?
Set as a theatre within a theatre, the two halves of Idiots Assemble are watched by both the flesh and blood audience and more foam made familiar faces in boxes on each side of the boards – Harry and Meghan stage left, with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping opposite.
There are also a few noteworthy cameos, from Birmingham’s own Jess Phillips and Alison Hammond, to a larger than life Liz Truss lettuce – who is only on stage for a matter of seconds, which in itself I desperately hope was deliberate. And an increasingly angry Nicola Sturgeon highlights just how hard it is to keep political comedy current these days… dear deity, you just can’t put your pen down for a second can you.
Despite a relatively thin on the ground plot, the story rolls wonderfully along as Tom Cruise & Co rally together to fight off the forces of modern day evil – with the Achilles heel of each character, good and bad, teased out of its shoe and mercilessly stamped on.
Some of the gags are woefully predictable or pantomime, such as Harry’s repetitive reference to Spare and Keir Starmer’s desperate search for “a simple yes or no answer.” And some are just puerile, with a song and dance routine centred around parts of Angela Rayner’s anatomy that would be embarrassing for an attention hungry five year old.
Then there’s the occasional wince and crawl back in your seat moment – call me a prude, but I’ll never clap a rendition of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ no matter how many free drinks are at the press reception.
But that’s Spitting Image for you, and the Idiots Assemble satire is astute enough to carry us confidently over the theatre threshold – with a well deserving standing ovation to the absurdly hard-working cast of puppeteers who should be subject to scientific investigation once the run is over.
There were even some moments of mature sensibility; whilst no one is (or indeed should be) out of the line of comedy fire, the war in Ukraine was neither skipped over nor ridiculed. As Mr Cruise reports back, President Zelensky was just “too busy” to play.
I remember the original Spitting Image, sitting comfortably at the other end of the TV political satire rainbow to Yes Minister. And maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s the current maelstrom of current affairs, but Idiots Assemble – Spitting Image Saves The World is a strong contender to the original series, one which works surprisingly well as a live production.
So then my lovelies; plaudits, praise, encores, and roses – and hopefully the start of more Spitting Image on stage.
Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image Saves the World runs at Birmingham Rep until 11 March. For a full performance schedule and links to online ticket sales visit: www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/spitting-image-live