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Berlusconi A New Musical (Southwark Playhouse, Elephant)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th April 2023)

“A cross between Hugh Heffner and Pinnochio.” The final song in this musical biography sums up Italian billionaire ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. 

From cruise ship entertainer via property developer and media mogul to popular politician who captured the nation’s women with American television imports and the men via football; to convictions for fraud and unsavoury stories of “bunga bunga parties” involving abuse of girls. 

A controversial and colourful life. The running joke is that Berlusconi wants to write the opera of his life but is downgraded to a mere musical. Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan condense the highlights into two and a half hours which are baffling, sometimes brilliant and mostly incredulous.

On an enormous Coliseum tiered marble set, immaculately executed by Lucy Osborne and some fine painters, the cast teeter up and down like Berlusconi’s fortunes. Video screens to the sides and a giant screen at the back add snippets of commentary, and the front row are often incorporated into the show with a handshake, shared confidence, or head to guard.

In the title role, Sebastien Torkia is manic, engaging and bears a striking resemblance to Les Gold from “Hardcore Pawn.” Oozing charisma and optimism, volatile and genuinely hurt when excluded from the parade of World Leaders, it’s a strong performance – and the monkey was amused when it shared an improvised moment with him over how to laugh a woman into bed. Good advice, by the way – except Torkia didn’t stop to explain how to stop her laughing once getting her there... room for a sequel, perhaps.

Failing to keep control of their son, Susan Fay as Mama Rosa and John Conroy as Luigi are parents in despair at the lack of moral compass. A particularly odd moment has Fay projected onto the rear screen in a cross between a religious icon and the “Teletubbies” baby. Conroy’s turn as a Roman Emperor is credible by comparison.

As the shunned women in his life, Emma Hatton as ex-wife Veronica, lover Fama (Jenny Fitzpatrick) and bunga bunga victim Bella (Natalie Kassanga) have moments to shine vocally. If their songs are rather indifferent, each wrings out meaning as far as possible within them.

Gavin Wilkinson as Vladimir Putin gets a good laugh in a row-boat sequence which is a little long but racks up the points against the Prime Minister quite neatly.

Prosecutor Ilda (Sally Ann Triplett) and Judge (McCallam Connell) loom throughout, finally getting their moment near the end, only to be thwarted on a technicality as steadfast friend Antonio (Matthew Woodyat) saves the day once more.

Choreographer Rebecca Howell makes excellent use of the limited space afforded, some fun conga line stuff and neat domino moment stand out. James Grieve likewise directs with an expansiveness suited to the characters, breaking out of the stage area to use the aisles as required.

The problem is that the show feels like “Evita” – literally at times, particularly the opening sequence – but with none of the requisite economy of story-telling. Key events are either too drawn-out or rushed over, and a few seem superfluous. While the structure of leading up to the 2012 verdict is sensible, the gathering of evidence within it is too untidy to build a strong case with sufficient impact at the climax.

A few of the songs land quite well in the moment, but many are undistinguished, though there are some decently sharp lyrics.

On the cusp of “try-out” and “ready to stage” as a show, it is to the producers’ credit that they took the chance and presented it. Now that the creative team will (no doubt) have a video record to work with, there should be a chance to further develop this idea – and certainly the cast at least is a problem solved.

We know who their Berlusconi is, now the team can work to reveal a little more clearly a quite unbelievable but compelling story.

2 stars.

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