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By Thom Dibdin
There’s a real celebratory vibe down at the Bongo Club just now, as John Davies’ “play of two halves”, Beating Berlusconi! plays for two nights only.
Football, working class politics, comedy, theatre and a great long shaggy dog story all combine to create a great night out. And the best of all is that even though the majority of Davies’ sparkling script is woven from the shared fabric of life in Liverpool over the last 30 odd years, at its heart, in the bit where the show really sticks one up to the bosses, lies a true story.
That central anecdote concerns Liverpool fan Mark Radley who went out to Istanbul for the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan. After the disastrous first half in which Liverpool went three nil down, he somehow ended up spending most of the second half in the AC Milan VIP suite.
Not only did he have a top view of the game, and Liverpool’s three magic goals, but he was sat next to one Silvio Berlusconi: the President of AC Milan and Italian Prime Minister – whose political outlook is somewhere to the right of Thatcher herself.
The situation in the box when Liverpool equalised was somewhat tense, to say the least, with it all turning just a little macho. And to add a touch of spice to these performances, Mark is to be found working the box office before the show – and happy to recount his story one more time after it is over.
That feel good moment is merely the icing on the cake, however. In Davies’ script, 24 year-old Radley becomes 37 year-old Kenny Noonan, portrayed by Paul Duckworth – along with a great rolling bundle of 39 other creations from Kenny’s scally school-pals Moose and Minty to Berlusconi himself.
It is one of those brilliant one-man show, tour-de-force performances that you normally only see during the Fringe. Duckworth is in his element, narrating the whole show around the big payoff but dwelling with light-hearted ease on the elements which lead up to it. Not to mention the way he finds space to give the truly horrific moments their full due.
That back-story is centred around football, Liverpool’s European triumphs and the tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough, but it also uses the characters of Moose and Minty to explore the political landscape of the Eighties and Nineties. Thatcher, the Toxteth riots of 1981, Militant, and Heseltine’s Garden City project provide the big headline reference points. The petty-bureaucratic nightmare of signing on and trying to exist when out of work are the reality. All are readily brought to life by Duckworth, with Mike Wight’s well-chosen bits of football video and archive photos of Liverpool there to give extra flesh.
Its never overdone – there’s always the promise of Istanbul to pull the plot back on course, or some comment about the Liverpool team to take it off into a different area. Not that everyone will be totally appreciative. Supporters of Manchester United and Everton might find it all a bit tough going, while Thatcherites will not find its tendency towards an Eighties agitprop view of theatre particularly appealing.
Veterans of the anti-poll tax campaigns and football fans without an anti-Liverpool axe to grind will find plenty to laugh about, however. And Duckworth’s performance is brilliantly observed piece of audience-pleasing theatre that gets really emotional when it matters.
Run ends Wednesday 3rd March