Review: ‘Follow My Leader’

The Blair-Bush axis comes angrily to the London stage in "Follow My Leader," a satirical revue with music that has only one significant problem: It isn't all that funny. When it's bad, "Follow My Leader" is scarcely worse than the regimes being skewered. And when it's good, "Follow My Leader" tips a cap toward the glory days of Tom Lehrer.

The Blair-Bush axis comes angrily to the London stage in “Follow My Leader,” a satirical revue with music that has only one significant problem: It isn’t all that funny. That may not matter much to the Hampstead Theater’s traditionally leftist constituency (not to mention the majority of British critics), who surely will share author Alistair Beaton’s outrage, no matter how scattershot the evening’s various skits and musical numbers. When it’s bad, “Follow My Leader” is scarcely worse than the regimes being skewered. And when it’s good — the cleverest moment is a sight gag that is part of Philip Witcomb’s set — “Follow My Leader” tips a cap toward the glory days of Tom Lehrer, when protest sent many a dissenter hurtling toward the piano.

For British spectators, at least, the primary delight will be the Tony Blair of erstwhile U.K. TV heartthrob Jason Durr, an unlikely choice on paper who turns out to be a galvanic musical comedy lead. Though the program rather coyly makes reference to the Prime Minister and not to Blair by name (for legal reasons?), there’s no mistaking the gleaming-eyed, manically earnest figure whom Durr puts before us, the actor’s pause-laden phrasing an apt gesture of mimesis even if the voice on occasion isn’t precisely right. As “Follow My Leader” sees it, Blair is embarked on a God-given crusade to restrain Dubya on the one hand and to function as his toady on the other. Every phone call between the two potentates must end, in Beaton’s view of things, with Blair’s obligatory signoff to Bush, “Let’s go kick ass” — which is what “Follow My Leader,” in the vaunted tradition of British satire, itself wants to do. (So suppliant is this Blair that he is seen promising Bush he won’t take any more holidays in France.)

And so we have a song skewering Donald Rumsfeld’s beloved policy of presumptive defense — why not go after the audience member in row M before she comes after you? — and another with performer Sevan Stephan playing former British cabinet member Clare Short, who has long been the political fly in Blair’s ointment, especially on Iraq.

“We’re Sending You a Cluster Bomb From Jesus” may be the most overtly Lehrer-esque number of composer Richard Blackford’s eclectic score, though I’m not sure God has as much to answer for as Blair’s own ego, an aspect of the Prime Minister that the show surprisingly undersells.

One hardly expects impartiality from such a venture, and “Follow My Leader” doesn’t provide it. Witcomb’s set, the floor painted in red and white with a stage draped in spangly blue, suggests one culture (the U.K.) in thrall to another (the U.S.) and neither one overly concerned about the consequences of their actions. Come the news that some 5,000-year-old jugs have been destroyed in the onslaught on Iraq, and the response from high-up is to herald an “entrepreneurial opportunity for jug-makers.”

So as to lay waste even to the possibility of ethnic differentiation in our ever-fearful times, the show cannily casts tuner veteran Peter Polycarpou as an “all-purpose Muslim bad guy” who, dressed in sequins and sunglasses, also gets to play God.

The rest of the company includes “Fosse” alumna Nicola Hughes, who shows up dressed in the American flag to deliver a scorching “America the Beautiful,” and Stuart Milligan, playing a Bush as inexact as Durr’s Blair is finely honed.

At one point, an American theatergoer appears on stage to deride the proceedings as “nothing but American propaganda,” while allowing Beaton and Blackford to anticipate that criticism every bit as bluntly as Rumsfeld’s “anticipatory” policies aim to preempt attack.

I’m not sure propaganda is as much the issue as a political climate that has — dare one say it — almost forestalled all comedy. “Follow My Leader” recognizes as much when it rolls footage of the World Trade Center burning or lets rip that Blair has “fewer and fewer advisers and more and more sycophants.” At such moments, you either nod or cringe or avert your gaze, while pondering the possibility that the world today may just be too scary even for satire.

Follow My Leader

Hampstead Theater, London; 325 Seats; £21 ($37.80) Top

Production

A Hampstead Theater presentation, in association with Birmingham Repertory Theater Co., of a musical revue in two acts, music by Richard Blackford, book and lyrics by Alistair Beaton. Directed by Mark Clements.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Philip Witcomb; lighting, Chris Ellis, re-created by James Farncombe; choreography, Paul J. Medford; musical director, David Roper; sound, Nick Greenhill. Opened, reviewed April 26, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

The Prime Minister - Jason Durr The President - Stuart Milligan
With: Martyn Ellis, Dawn Hope, Nicola Hughes, Paul J. Medford, Sevan Stephan, Warren Wills, Giles New, Peter Polycarpou.
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