Matthew Wells and Julian Spooner in Project Dictator - Photo: Rhum + Clay

Theatre is often a game of two halves – and this rumbunctious political satire is certainly that.

While there is technically no interval, Rhum + Clays’s Project Dictator, Or: Why democracy is overrated and I don’t miss it at all has two very distinct aspects: one a joyful clown show creating a political pantomime that was lapped up by an excited audience of young theatregoers; the other a more muted and menacing classical performance, dominated by the constant threat of the apocryphal Pierrot tears.

This meta-heavy show opens with Martin (played by Matthew Wells) explaining that he is putting on his life’s work, a play solving the political problems of the nation, with the grudging assistance of musician Susan (Sarah Spencer) and Everyman and literally “everything else” ensemblist Jeremy (Julian Spencer).

There’s something of The Day Today in the production, with Spencer’s costume not far from a Chris Morris’ creation and some of the physical and absurdist comedy reminiscent of Brant the physical cartoonist and its Speak Your Brains vox pops.

Things quickly turn when, Bedazzled like, Jeremy becomes bored of being the dogs body and the devil takes over the reins, complaining that serious politics is just not fun enough. The audience cheer along to begin with, until the new leader bins the press for asking difficult questions and encourages the crowd to dob in anyone that isn’t fully on board. (Thanks to the turncoat next to me, my professional detachment gave me five minutes of fame in this opening night of the run at Norwich Theatre Playhouse.)

Rather abruptly, a curtain falls and we get a complete change in tone. We soon see through a veil as Wells and Spencer appear stripped down and hooded in a what looks like a backstage dressing room. A central speaker barks faceless orders at them, and they dress as classical clowns, with white costumes and painted faces, before performing a series of routines. The pair find it increasingly difficult to continue, although it is not in the end them that break the reign of terror.

The choreography is exemplary and the two are clearly technically adept clowns. Just like the rest of the production, from Emily Nelson’s set and costumes to Simeon Miller’s lighting, this is a slickly produced piece.

What it doesn’t quite manage to be is more than a sum of its parts. The earlier slapstick is enjoyable, with some nice digs at Amazon and the tropes of politics. The later traditional clowning is expertly executed. Together we get the message that politics and democracy may not always be fascinating or entertaining, but strong cultish leaders – however initially seductive – inevitably lead to a situation where the fun is forced, and not joining in is no longer an option.

But this we knew before. For all its invention, and its knowing nods to and bending of convention, I didn’t feel there was anything new to learn here and ultimately it served mostly to distract – the very thing it most decried.

  • Project Dictator, Or: Why democracy is overrated and I don’t miss it at all continues at Norwich Theatre Playhouse until 12 October 2023.