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A Conchord Takes On Totalitarianism

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

National Theatre

Until Saturday, 14 March

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

This Festival of the Arts production is modestly billed as a ‘work in progress’ – but is already well advanced, remarkably polished, and looking like a surefire hit.

The show is an adaptation of the George Saunders novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, turned into a musical by writer Tim Price, director Lyndsey Turner, actors from Britain’s National Theatre, and our very own Bret McKenzie, who provides the music and lyrics.

An acute and blackly funny look at totalitarianism, the piece starts as the residents of Inner Horner are tumbled by an earthquake into the encircling state of Outer Horner. One Outer Horner resident, Phil, seizes this opportunity to exploit and foster resentment between the two populations, rapidly interning the unfortunate citizens of Inner Horner and taxing them for the privilege. How this can happen so easily, and how ordinary people respond, provides the rest of the narrative.

The overall feel and the set are low-key-funny: the characters sport a weird array of headgear, shinpads, spray bottles, boxes and other unidentified objects, while good use is made of live animation projected in the old school OHP style. The acting and singing are generally excellent. Daniel Rigby, as Phil, is inevitably the star, especially during his extraordinary moments of stuttering, freeze-framing descent into mental collapse. Meanwhile Jeffrey Kingsford Brown, alternating the roles of Gus and the President, is exceptionally funny. But there isn’t a weak link anywhere in the cast.

Unsurprisingly, McKenzie’s music is to the fore, and bears a recognisable Flight of the Conchords signature. It’s a cheerful rifling through the back catalogue of musical genres in the post-ironic manner we’ve come to expect, taking the mickey out of each genre but in such a gentle way as to simultaneously express sarcasm and love. And his writing is as funny as ever. Who, after all, could resist the rousing chorus, ‘It’s going to be a great day – but not for you’, or the motivational classic, ‘Sometimes you gotta f**k another man up’?

The overall text and narrative, meanwhile, are well handled. Some of the jibes at authoritarian leaders are predictable, but for the most part the show manages to land fresh punches from fresh angles, and the writers make full use of the power of surrealism to portray something familiar in a new light.

There are, of course, some minor weaknesses in something that remains a work in progress. A couple of scenes between Freeda and daughter Gertrude, although strong in their own right, feel poorly integrated into the rest of the narrative. It’s not totally clear what role is played by the various appendages the characters sport, and therefore why their removal is so significant. And the miking of the actors is not always immaculate.

Other inconsistencies will also need to be straightened out. The show can’t quite seem to decide whether its overall vibe is British or Kiwi, with the result that various incongruous accents are on display and the humble fried potato is labelled as both ‘crisps’ and ‘chips’.

These are minor points, though. The only serious reservation, perhaps, applies to all political theatre – namely, will the people who actually need to see it buy tickets, or will it simply reinforce the prejudices of a liberal, theatre-going elite? Only time will tell, of course. And those who do attend the final version – or indeed this work in progress – are guaranteed a very entertaining, and at times unsettling, night out.

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