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By Lord Davies of Brixton
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A brutal satire with a pantomime feel: Lord Wood reviews 'Pandemonium'

Orbis Rex, played by Paul Chahidi | Image by Marc Brenner

Lord Wood

Lord Wood

4 min read

Very angry, frequently vicious and sometimes moving, Armando Iannucci’s new play is an excoriating lampoon of those who rule us

Can I just shock you? I am a massive Armando Iannucci fanboy. The comic genius behind The Day Today, Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, Veep, Avenue 5 and much more has probably been responsible for more of my laughter than anyone else in the last 30 years. Much of his most brilliant writing satirises politics-as-usual and the types who inhabit it, rather than targeting specific real-life politicians. But with Pandemonium, Iannucci has written a very angry, frequently savage, sometimes moving and totally devastating satire of politicians we all know well: the cast and crew of Boris Johnson’s government that governed Britain through Covid.

For this excoriating lampoon of those who rule us, Iannucci has taken inspiration from classics of English literature. “Pandemonium” is the capital of Hell in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, and Iannucci’s play is a wonderfully clever mock-heroic satire in the tradition of William Hogarth, John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Its thinly veiled alternative universe is Albion, “a clapped-out country of flooded shoe shops”, governed by a blonde-wigged leader with a massive God-complex named “Orbis Rex” – an anagram which, as the cast jokes, everyone can work out instantly.

Orbis’ lieutenants will be equally recognisable. There’s Michael Go, who “goes but is never gone”; Riches Sooner, a sprite whose financial acumen and obsession with business makes him a valuable sidekick; and Dominant Wraath, portrayed as a Cockney thug. Later we are treated to the arrival of the hilariously cartoonish Less Trust, the verbal felicity of Jacob Rhesus Monkey, and a brief appearance of Suella Bovverboy dressed in 19th-century military splendour with medals galore.

This anger reaches its peak with the viciously depicted character of Matt Hemlock, a form of human slime

The plot will also be familiar. The shallow but dynamic Orbis comes to power as a patriotic hero but is soon confronted by the crisis of a global pestilence blamed on bat-spray. Trolleying from nonchalance (“Let us take it on the chin”) to desperate reliance on his scientific advisers (Patrick Balance and Sir Christ But Witty) to a Homeric duel with the plague itself, Orbis is laid low by hubris, the incompetence of his court, and partying during the plague – which he denies even when confronted in court by Cressida Dick-Joke and Sue Grave. You get the drift.

Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid has of course already been the subject of many a satire. What distinguishes Pandemonium is not simply the 18th-century verse structure and its incessantly excellent one-liners but the tone of bitter anger at what Iannucci considers the idiocy, narcissism and deceit of those in charge. This anger reaches its peak with the viciously depicted character of Matt Hemlock (hilariously played by Amalia Vitale), a form of human slime whom Orbis raises from a primeval bog to (mis)handle the crisis.

The full cast
The full cast: Faye Castelow, Paul Chahidi, Natasha Jayetileke, Debra Gillett and Amalia Vitale | Image by: Marc Brenner

The laughs are constant in Pandemonium, but overall it feels more clever than hilarious. Perhaps it is because we know the narrative so well, so it never really surprises us. That and the straitjacket of form that the mock-heroic verse style imposes. It has superb sections, such as Orbis’ soliloquy contemplating two different speeches on Brexit (“To leave or not to leave, that is the question”). Patrick Marber directs the play with brisk energy, and the cast of five, rotating rapidly between multiple roles, bring a cheery pantomime feel to the acerbic script. 

The play ends with a short, serious epilogue, in which the actors remind the audience that the fools they have played are still in charge, and we all have votes at an upcoming election. You leave knowing that even if Iannucci’s political sympathies are not clear, his hostilities undoubtedly are.

Lord Wood of Anfield is a Labour peer

Written by: Armando Iannucci
Directed by: Patrick Marber
Venue: Soho Theatre, London W1 – until 13 January 24

Publicity still
Image by: Andy Riley


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