Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 10 September, 2003

The posters for Tariq Ali's The Illustrious Corpse carry the slug-line "A homage to Dario Fo". The thing about Fo, though, is that the jokes he uses to leaven his polemics are actually good, and may even drive the dramatic action. With Ali, it's more as if he remembers in passing every so often to shove in something vaguely funnyish, but you can tell that his heart is really with the ranting. The most heartfelt line in the first hour of this 90-minute disappointment is charged with neither comical nor personal passion; rather, it is "Do you remember the night [your father] took us to hear C.L.R. James?" 'Nuff said.

The plot: Home Secretary Sir Huntley Palmer Jones has been murdered by his wife Desdemona for selling out his socialist ethics to the Blairist project. She explains this at some length to a Metropolitan Police commissioner who doesn't quite have the depth of character to qualify as a cartoon. That's it. Ah, but if only it were.

Ali doesn't tell us anything remotely new about New Labour; this is not so much shooting fish in a barrel as taking a howitzer to a plate of ready-to-eat pilchards. And his comic touch is anything but sure, so it's up to Iqbal Khan's production (originally seen at the Leicester Haymarket in June, and now at Soho Theatre) to take on the task of lightening things. Kristin Milward as Desdemona can't quite reconcile the felinely chuckling side of her character with the more predominant strain of ideological hectoring; at one point, she ascends what is meant to be the dock of a courtroom, but it just seems like a soapbox pulpit. Russell Dixon gives it loads as the cop, but never decides what exactly it is that he's giving loads of.

Ali may have very specific targets in mind: the late Sir Huntley is black, and his first scene as a leftwing firebrand has distinct echoes of Paul Boateng's hubristic cry on his election in 1987, "Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto!" In the end, though, who cares, and why should we? Desdemona declares that politics is not an abstraction, but is intimately bound up with "the lives of ordinary people". That's true enough, but it's shrill, weary tripe such as this that does so much to make us disavow it. Compared to Animal, the play which immediately precedes it each evening at Soho (see separate review), The Illustrious Corpse has all the political insight and incisiveness of a mossy half-brick.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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