“Berlusconi A New Musical” is the second show to land at the brand new Southwark Playhouse Elephant venue, about the life and controversial career of Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi.
The traditionally-not-very-appealing title character is somewhat jarringly played by a charming and athletic Sebastian Torkia. Right from the beginning we encounter Silvio as a highly dislikable man, constantly lampooned through musical numbers where he ridicules himself, is mocked by friends, spoilt by parents, hated by women. Sadly this is the only aspect of this real-life enigmatic character we encounter from the beginning to the end of the musical. There are occasional glimpses of a backstory, suggesting that Silvio used to be a brave and good child standing up to bullies for his friends, and that his stereotypically overbearing Italian mother tried to instil goodness in him, but ultimately they don't add up to the countless misdeeds and the evil nature we are constantly presented with through the story. Vladimir Putin's part, very well achieved by a funny and convincing Gavin Wilkinson, does a much better and faster job in using comedy and satire to both entertain and make us reflect on the dangers of misplaced power.
Emma Hatton, Natalie Kassanga and Jenny Fitzpatrick deliver strong and committed performances as the women involved in Berlusconi's scandals, but while Silvio dances around in mostly upbeat songs having the time of his life, these women's spotlights are constantly relegated to sad, somewhat sentimental ballads as disempowered unknowing victims, or subservient mothers.
The writing averts any multifaceted, subtle aspects of these real-life stories and characters, and overall fails to delve into the complexities of the political, socio-economic circumstances in which Italy and its people found themselves during Berlusconi's rise to power. We are not given any substantial information as to why Italians, including some of these women, found themselves compelled to entrust Silvio with their votes, or their marriages. The potential of this story, namely to shed light on important political and social issues still relevant to our times, is lost to the one-dimensional nature of the writing. Over and over again throughout the show, one has the feeling of being told how to feel about these characters, rather than being shown a compelling story with an important moral. There are no dialogues. The music is a continuous, drums-driven, slightly repetitive and undefined mix of pop, mild rock and musical theatre, without any particular number standing out. The storytelling employs nice and simple devices, like projections and theatrical trapdoors, but they are massively overused.
What is also surprising is the total lack of any Italian actors or creatives within the team. Maybe for this or other reasons the production has made the clear choice of steering away from any too-strong or distinctive Italian behaviours and accents. Like an elephant in the room, the artistic repercussions of this choice linger throughout the show. Despite some stereotypical Italian expressions and hand gestures still being occasionally employed for comedic purposes, all the characters end up feeling neither really British nor Italian. It's like being at an Italian restaurant and not being sure if we're being served spaghetti carbonara or shepherd's pie, maybe something in between.
“Berlusconi A New Musical” runs at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant until April 29th.
Review: A.G. Photo: Nick Rutter