The New Statesman Episode 2006: The Blair B'Stard Project, Theatre Royal, Brighton

New Labour, no laughter. Let's hope things get better
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The Independent Culture

In 1987 when The New Statesman first appeared on television, Rik Mayall was interviewed by the Daily Mirror under the bold headline "I'm The Right B'Stard to Shake Maggie." In the article, the comedian suggested how the antics of his lecherous, amoral Tory MP character would make people sit up and take note of the yoke of Thatcherism they were living under. To some extent, he was right.

Twenty years on, the 48-year-old comedian and his writers, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, would no doubt like to imagine that having their character defect to New Labour would make for similarly effective barbs against Blairism. Sadly their brave attempt to take The New Statesman from small screen is a case of New Labour, No Laughter.

In the show, B'stard resides at number 9 Downing Street, pulling the strings like an unholy mix of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell. For example, it was he who engineered the demise of Clause 4 and he who attempted to plant WMD in Iraq to pave the way for invasion and so on. But while his TV persona allows for Alan to scheme and schmooze, on stage he is restricted to an, albeit handsome, office set. It's not a good thing to be upstaged by your motorised drinks cabinet but this wonder of stagecraft was at least on cue.

Overall, the rhythm of the show is, well, laboured; it goes set-up, pause, joke. When they come, the gags are often old news, such as: "I'm not responsible for John Prescott's travel arrangements" says B'stard when another character feeds him "pigs might fly". In between, the silences are such that you could almost hear the sound of shares dropping.

Inevitably, with such an experienced writing and performing team there are some nice moments; one-liners, mainly on the subject of B'stard's sexual appetite (e.g. on the issue of unmarried mothers: "you can't blame them all on me") or his actual under-par performance in the bedroom. The most enjoyable part of the show is, however, watching an under-rehearsed Mayall ad-lib, come out of character and visit the prompt at the side of the stage ("just going for pee" he excuses). It's the dramatic equivalent of policy-on-the hoof but unlike it's political equivalent it works.

Mayall relishes playing B'Stard and says that he likes that this unwholesome character is laughed at and not laughed with. However, at the height of his powers B'Stard was also enjoyed at face value; his 80s excess attractive almost in the same way that Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney was. Tonight Mayall's older B'stard is no wiser but lacks that trademark devilish twinkle, the appetite for the fray perhaps like the very man he is meant to be mocking.

Plots and sub-plots fly hither and thither but, like the 2001 general election, it doesn't seem to matter. While Mayall tried valiantly to hold his own, the star of the evening was Marsha Fitzalan, successfully reprising her role as B'stards tarty, underhand wife, so much so that you feel she hits the same register that she did in the television series.

It's very early days in this mammoth tour, so surely things can only get better. Mind you, the last time I heard that piece of wishful thinking I wasn't entirely convinced then either.

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