Monster Raving Loony
18 May 2016
For over 30 years, David Sutch was the lord of misrule at general elections, undermining the mainstream parties with his clownish behaviour and silly costumes. With his Official Monster Raving Loony Party, he was part of a changing society that produced the irreverent comedy of The Goons, Monty Python and That Was the Week That Was so it was an inspired idea of James Graham to explore the life and times of the self-styled Screaming Lord Sutch through the framework of classic British comedy.
Monster Raving Loony, which has transferred from Theatre Royal Plymouth, goes back as far as music hall, Max Miller and Punch and Judy – all of which were an early influence on Sutch as he was growing up in Harrow in north-west London. It traces his close relationship with his mother, his manic depression, his sporadic career as a musician and the formation of his party which gained fame for fielding candidates in national and local elections, including the constituencies of prime ministers. Although Sutch lost all 40 elections he stood in, he became a much-loved figure for poking fun at the establishment before taking his own life in 1999.
This is all told through a series of sketches where real people are re-cast: Sutch’s mother becomes a pantomime dame, Dandy Nichols’ Else Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part and old Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son. The Official Monster Raving Loony Party conference is revamped hilariously as a staff meeting from Hi-de-Hi while Sutch’s dealings with election returning officers are cleverly re-imagined as Hancock’s Half Hour and ‘Allo ‘Allo. There are also insights on post-war British society and the political scene through the likes of Pete and Dud, That Was the Week That Was, Monty Python and The Goon Show.
Directed by Simon Stokes, the six-strong cast prove themselves incredibly versatile and adept at mimicry. Joanna Brookes is uncannily good impersonating the likes of Dandy Nichols and Su Pollard’s Peggy in Hi-de-Hi, while Joe Alessi sets the standard high from the start as Max Miller and a bawdy pantomime dame interacting with the audience. The actors even take up instruments to provide musical accompaniment, led by musical director and composer Tom Attwood.
Through all the sketches, the role of Screaming Lord Sutch is played with great skill and aplomb by Samuel James. He gives us glimpses of Sutch’s tormented soul but also impresses in his many comedy guises from Tony Hancock to Harry H Corbett’s Harold Steptoe.
I’m not sure how much sense the play would make to someone who was unfamiliar with Sutch and the comedy of the second half of the 20th century but the play has enough laughs, energy and inventiveness to make that unimportant. With the audience donning party hats and at times encouraged to participate, it is an entertaining show that slips in plenty of sharp insights into British politics and society.