Spitting Image stages revival – and this time the puppets are on a mission

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Writing a political satire for the stage in today’s tumultuous times is no easy task, as the writers of the new Spitting Image Live were quick to find out.

They had originally planned to base the show around Boris Johnson, but ended up binning the whole script the day after he left Downing Street.

“I think we were probably, apart from him, the last people left in the country who wanted him to stay,” said the comedian Al Murray, who has co-written the show alongside the impressionist Matt Forde and the show’s director, Sean Foley. “But it’s meant that we arrived on the thing we’ve got, which is Tom Cruise in the centre of the show, rather than a politician. It’s as much about showbiz as politics.”

Their new stage production, Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image Saves the World, is the show’s first foray into the world of theatre and features more than 100 of the famous caricature puppets people have seen on their TV screens over the years.

“I think theatre is the best place to experience Spitting Image,” said Forde. “I’m amazed it was never done before, this is the natural home for it. To have something that’s so visually striking – it’s bizarre that no one at any point in its history said: people should be able to come and see these things.”

As he talks between show rehearsals, he is watched by the array of life-size puppets – “the greatest cast ever assembled”, as Foley describes them.

Political figures still feature prominently in the new Spitting Image Live stageshow.
Boris Johnson might not be as prominent as he would have been last year, but many other political figures feature in Spitting Image Live show. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

There’s an angry, lifejacket-clad Greta Thunberg, a terrifying, rabid Paddington Bear, Jacob Rees-Mogg in the style of a praying mantis, and Matt Hancock in his I’m a Celebrity getup.

While the classic characters are there – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, King Charles and Prince Andrew – some unexpected faces are also in the line-up – Alison Hammond, Ed Sheeran and Stormzy all feature.

“Because of the talent of the artists and the puppeteers, the way they’re manoeuvred, you really do feel like it’s those people,” said Forde. “It sounds like the maddest thing but you really do feel like you’ve just watched Tom Cruise, Boris Johnson, and Stormzy all in a scene together, it’s mind-blowing.”

The show is premiering at the Birmingham Rep at the start of February, in the city where the show was first filmed 40 years ago.

Spitting Image was one of the most-watched TV programmes of the 1980s before it was cancelled in 1996 due to declining viewing figures. It was rebooted in 2020 for the streaming service BritBox only to be cancelled after two series.

Under the watchful eye of the caricaturist Roger Law, who co-created the original show and has signed off on the script and puppets in the new stage version, the team are hoping theatre will breathe new life into the format. “There’s a mega appetite for satire. I don’t think there’s ever been a stronger appetite,” said Forde.

Puppet of Rishi Sunak
The sudden demise of Boris Johnson (and Liz Truss) left the eventual successor to the No 10 role, Rishi Sunak, as a figure well worthy of parody by the Spitting Image Live team. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“Since 2014 politics has been explosive, and I think people have really wondered why there hasn’t been more satire on telly. I think Spitting Image being put on BritBox, when it should have just been on the mainstream channels, was a mistake.”

The stage show, like the TV version, is based on a series of sketches, but there is an overarching plot – Tom Cruise assembling a team to take on the bandits who are ruining “broken Britain”. “We’re in a golden age of the Marvel movie, people are used to seeing heroic quest stories played out with big film stars in, so that’s what we’ve done,” said Murray.

While the stage show has given the team more freedom to be bolder, there have also been logistical challenges, such as the puppeteers suffering from “dead arms” after holding their characters for too long. But the show doesn’t go to pains to hide the effort that goes in to bringing the characters alive.

“When we first started messing around with the whole idea of putting it on stage, we quite quickly decided we’re not going to go down the route of trying to hide people behind desks the whole time,” said Foley.

“You declare it as part of the theatricality and I think that’s what’s been added to the Spitting Image brand here – it’s all about the theatricality.”