Gyles Brandreth is a repeat offender. The former M.P., instigator of Britain's national Scrabble championships, founder of the Teddy Bear Museum in Stratford-upon-Avon and holder of the world record for the longest after-dinner speech (12 hours and 30 minutes) is also the main culprit behind the musical Zipp! that opens this week in London's West End. But others share the blame. One is the late Sir Ralph Richardson, who backed out of a play the young Brandreth was staging as part of the 1974 Oxford Theatre Festival. Theatrical wisdom dictates, "When faced with a crisis, put on a musical." So a desperate Brandreth wrote to Samuel Beckett requesting permission to stage Waiting for Godot the musical. Beckett responded swiftly, emphatically. No.
Two more recent culprits are Tony Blair and Brandreth's wife, Michele. The 1997 Labour landslide cost Brandreth his Tory seat in the House of Commons, and his relieved wife fondly imagined she had reclaimed him from the high-maintenance mistress that is Parliament. Brandreth returned to television, where he had earlier made a name for himself, but a stint as a campaign reporter during the 2001 election triggered a second crisis. "My wife saw the glint in my eye when I came back from a day of dogging Blair's footsteps," Brandreth recalls. "It was then she gave me carte blanche to pursue any 'little dream' I desired as long as it wasn't politics."
That "little dream" has become the Pocket Musical Theatre Company and its debut production, Zipp! a high-speed romp through a century of musicals, starting with the big hit of 1900, Floradora. "We aim to give you 100 shows for less than the price of one," says Brandreth. "We also undertake to do that in 90 minutes or your money back." Brandreth, whose singing voice has been described as a cross between Rex Harrison and Kermit the Frog, predicts Zipp! will have wide appeal: "If you love musicals as I do, you get them all at once; if you hate them, you'll never have to go again for the same reason." For those weary of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical hegemony, the company promises to perform his entire repertoire in 60 seconds. "Actually, we've found in rehearsals that we can get that down to around 45 seconds," says PMT's leading man Andrew Wadsworth, "so we may need to throw in a bit of Puccini."
It was Lloyd Webber's former collaborator Tim Rice who claimed a hit musical requires eight great numbers. If that's the case, Zipp! can't fail since it is based almost entirely on show-stoppers. But as last year's Edinburgh Festival audiences (who voted Zipp! the most popular show) discovered, Brandreth and Co. do not simply belt out a medley of hits from the West End and Broadway. "Zipp! has become a musical in itself," says Wadsworth, a veteran of Les Misérables and South Pacific. Adds Brandreth: "It is also an attempt to explore the DNA of musical theater, to find the ingredients that make a great show."
His own chemistry bears exploring too. The journey from Parliament to stage is not an improbable one. As Brandreth himself points out, "in politics you become used to audiences walking out, heckling and throwing things at you." But what makes a former Lord Commissioner of the Treasury willing to don fishnet stockings and strut around the stage like an overstimulated Dame Edna? Cynics might suggest that he's only doing what many Tory grandees do anyway in the privacy of their homes. The truth is simpler. "I've always wanted to star in a West End production," says Brandreth, "but since nobody was likely to cast me I decided I had to put on a show myself."
There's clearly a bit of the exhibitionist in Brandreth. This, after all, is the man who once sought to beat the world record for a live, televised kiss an attempt aborted when the TV channel cut away to cover Leonid Brezhnev's funeral. But tied to the exhibitionism is a wide streak of humanity and humor first revealed in his acclaimed political diary, Breaking the Code. If only a fraction of it surfaces at the Duchess Theatre, audiences will be captivated. And if they're not, they'll be able to remonstrate personally with the cast, which will mingle with them for post-performance drinks. "There," says Brandreth, "if plied with alcohol, we might be persuaded to give a preview of PMT's next production: Thud! The A-Z of Classical Ballet."