Possibly less famous than Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Andy Barrett’s Tony’s Last Tape has much in common with it; not least the obsession each of the eponymous heroes had with bananas and tape recordings.
A comforting reminder of an age when principles were held dear.
Tony Benn's daughter, Melissa, commented at his funeral that her father ‘ate so many bananas that he was hospitalised with suspected potassium poisoning’. Along with cheese sandwiches they formed his staple diet when on endless tours around the country and on the campaign trail. As a lover of technology he also recorded his life on cassette tapes that were later to become his published diaries. This had already given playwright Andy Barrett the idea for his play’s title but the bananas turned out to be a surprise coincidence.
For those not familiar with this legend of British politics, Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn (1925-2014) was a Labour Member of Parliament for 47 years between 1950 and 2001 and a Cabinet minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years he progressively dropped more of his name, ultimately known simply as Tony Benn. He also worked hard to lose the title of 2nd Viscount Stansgate, which he inherited upon his father’s death. As a peer he was unable to remain an MP and the law prevented him from renouncing his title. His answer was to have the law changed with the passage of the Peerage Act 1963. He subsequently took up several offices of government under prime ministers Wilson and Callaghan: Postmaster General; Minister of Technology; Secretary of State for Industry and finally Secretary of State for Energy. His politics became increasingly radical and those on the left who espoused his ideology became known as Bennites. He was President of the Stop the War Coalition from 2001 until his death. The landmark Post Office Tower in London, whose construction he oversaw, is a lasting monument to him.
Benn meticulously made a daily record of all he did, so his published diaries provide an excess of material for a playwright. Inevitably Barrett has been highly selective and to a large extent has chosen passages, events and comments that lend themselves to being performance material. There are significant omissions. This is not a full biography but rather an attempt to provide an insight into the man at an opportune moment. ‘The timing feels right,’ he observes, ‘to bring Tony Benn’s story back to life. With.... the Labour party using the word socialism with increasing confidence, it's clear that Benn’s time as a political thinker has come again. He’s as relevant now as he’s ever been.’ He’s right. Many lines resonate with contemporary significance.
As the rain pours down, Benn (Philip Bretherton), now 87, is up early, unable to sleep. His sense of history and humour is emblazoned on the T-shirt he wears under his dressing gown and with his pyjama bottoms: ‘Say No Poll Tax 1381; a reminder of the battles he had with Thatcher and the poor have always had with the ruling classes. He puts down his mug of tea and starts the recording equipment, rummages in the drawers of his desk, that occupies centre stage in his cluttered study, and finds the pipe he was never without. Oh, and a banana! Thus the saga begins.
Bretherton lights the pipe with great attention to Benn’s style. Surely, no one ever lit a pipe in such a contorted manner as Benn that it became a well-recognised trademark. The same accuracy applies to the all-important and highly distinctive voice that barely changed over the years, unlike that of the Queen and Thatcher. He never lost the edge of aristocracy, Westminster School and Oxford, yet he transformed himself to the great champion of the working classes with a passion. Bretherton gets that too in the conviction with which he utters exchanges that Benn had with so many people. Also present is the wicked sense of humour, the joy of pranks played and the sadness that stayed with him for the many years following the death of his brother and more lately Caroline, his dear wife for over fifty years.
Under the direction of Giles Croft this production at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, is a comforting reminder of an age when principles were held dear and people espoused causes that consumed their lives. Benn made a conscious decision to finally call it a day and record his last tape, but he left us words to remember that underscored his life. ‘There is no final victory, there is no final defeat. Just the same battles which have to be fought over and over and over again.’