Tony Benn is well known for being one of Britain’s most divisive politicians – and yet when he died in 2014, tributes poured in from colleagues across the political spectrum, who spoke of their great respect for his enduring commitment to the values and causes in which he believed. In his tribute, then Labour leader Ed Miliband said, “He believed in movements and mobilised people behind him for the causes he cared about, often unfashionable ones. In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world.”
That commitment comes across powerfully in Andy Barrett’s play Tony’s Last Tape, in which a frail 87-year-old Benn (or rather “a character called Tony Benn, based on the real life Tony Benn”) decides it’s time to finally quit politics… well, maybe. For 50 years he’s recorded the events of his life in his diaries, and on this rainy morning he’s recording his final tape. What emerges from the meandering monologue that follows is a picture of a principled and still fiercely dedicated politician, but also a devoted family man with a mischievous sense of humour… and an enduring love of bananas.
Most importantly – and refreshingly, particularly at the moment – Tony Benn comes across as a human being fighting for other human beings. And whether we agree with or even understand everything he says (I suspect you’d need to know quite a bit about British political history to pick up every reference and name-drop in the play), it’s impossible not to like and respect him for his passion and determination. It’s also very obvious that a man like that, despite his best intentions, won’t be able to stop; he can’t even resist risking life and limb to change a lightbulb, even though common sense dictates he should definitely not be climbing on the desk in his condition.
Philip Bretherton gives a strong solo performance, recognisably portraying the real Tony Benn in voice, appearance and mannerisms. He’s equally convincing, however, in his depiction of an elderly man looking back over an eventful life and reflecting thoughtfully on the decisions – both right and wrong – that he’s taken, and emotionally on the loved ones he’s lost along the way. Director Giles Croft manages the pace and energy of the production well; rather than just sit at his desk and talk, Benn potters around his cluttered study and rummages in desk drawers and bookcases, frequently stumbling on long-forgotten objects that spark new memories and anecdotes. As a result, there’s little in the way of linear narrative – instead the play is a 75-minute stream of consciousness that hops from one topic to another.
In light of this, Tony’s Last Tape shouldn’t be seen as anything approaching a Tony Benn biopic (with over 50 years of material to work from, Barrett could hardly be expected to cover everything anyway), and it’s probably a good idea to read at least a brief summary of Benn’s career before going in to give the play some context. What the play is, however, is a sympathetic and respectful portrayal of a man who went into politics for the right reasons, and who never wavered from his convictions. Particularly in the current political climate, that feels like something which deserves to be celebrated.