Five Stars – the delicious madcappery of Variety Soup by @FatSlightly is face-achingly funny

Get these gents a TV show

Variety Soup opens with a hilarious Buster Keaton inspired sequence. Black and white film that segues into live action shows Goronwy Thom’s journey from towel-losing swimmer at Brighton to a formally dressed Master of Ceremonies at the Leicester Square theatre. It is such an amusing beginning I fear that productions that start with the performers merely walking on stage will from now on feel staid and unimaginative.

The rest of the show continues the high-laugh quotient with the seven members of Slightly Fat all contributing to the onstage buffoonery. Richard Garaghty and Jon Hicks in particular are able to induce laughter with just an expression but each of the gang is an experienced performer – Herbie Treehead laments throughout that he is forty-six and the others are of a similar age. Given the troupe’s name and the amount of male flesh that is on display over the course of the evening it seems fair to comment on their chosen name. Slightly Fat is a misnomer. At least two of the performers are flattered by the description. At least two suffer an unwarranted calumny.

Credit Robbie Jacks Slightly Fat Features RJ5921

The climax of Find a Lady (photo credit Robbie Jacks)

Gareth Jones gives a masterclass in trust as he allows himself to be wrapped in cling film – in order to become a human butterfly pupa, eventually to be hanging by his feet from the ceiling. If ever a Kid’s, don’t try this at home! warning was necessary it would be during the matinée performances of this sketch. At the 8.40pm show the audience’s laughs turned to silence as the cling film was wrapped more and more tightly around Jones’ head. Never play with plastic bags has been drummed into us ever since we first played with a plastic bag and after a while I was looking around for St John’s Ambulance and feeling uncomfortable that something was about to go horribly wrong. When I was almost certain I was about to witness an onstage death a colleague broke an air hole through the film and the human butterfly could breathe again. He sounded very relieved.

First seen at Edinburgh and other fringe festivals, the production does feel as though it has been lengthened from the usual fringe running length. Some of the sketches are overlong, others could be cut. Performance art is an apt description for the creation of Jon Hick’s Baselitz-style portrait, but though it is clever it needs speeding up as it loses some momentum and has the audience shifting in their seats. A scene with an elephant balancer and Mousetrap-style catapult also felt too long. I would mix up the order, move the optimistic Happy Song to the end of the show and have everyone leave on a rousing, participatory high.

There will be many sketches from the show described at length to friends over Christmas dinner, from the tiny rootin’, tootin’ cowboy to the levitating elephant, tiger training and delightfully obvious Cutting a Man in Half. Circus skills combine with singing dogs, songs, cross-auditorium diablo tricks and much more. One long sketch relies on an audience member dragged onto stage, which can sometimes be disagreeable, but last night Darren got a well-deserved round of applause and his name was chanted in admiration. Particularly amusing is Find the Lady, an absurd, enlarged version of the ancient cups and balls trick. As seen above it utilises orange buckets, wigs and distinctly unfeminine human heads.
Revelling in mistakes, lo-fi production values and physical comedy, Variety Soup is hard to beat for good-natured family-friendly laughs. If you do leave the theatre humming one of Herbie Treehead’s tunes, you can buy the album here. I hope mine arrives before Christmas.

Recommended.

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On until 29th December.

A FIVE STAR VAUDEVILLE ACT

 

London theatre, art and new music podcast – new episode

The latest 10 minute episode of the London culture review podcast is now available to download. Click here to add the podcast to your iTunes account or here to get the feed for other readers.

This week –

Reviews of London theatre and art and new music from Sidefields

 

00:00 The Night is Ours by Sidefields

02:35 Back Door by Off-off-off Broadway at the Tristan Bates theatre

06:30 Anthony Lister at Lazarides

 

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Books, blindness and Borges. And I. Devised theatre from @idlemotion

Even in the indie-ist of indie films and the offy-ist of off-Broadway dramas opticians and librarians rarely get big roles. Hollywood super-villains are rarely evil opthalmic surgeons and Quick! To the library is not often heard on stage at the National Theatre. The sincere Borges and I addresses this discrimination by telling of South American librarian Jorge Luis Borges. Head of the Argentinian National Public Library he was also a prize-winning writer, sharing the 1961 Prix International with Samuel Beckett. Born in 1899, by the time he was 55 he was completely blind, writing by dictation and unable to read. He was also running an organisation with access to 800,000 books.

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First performed at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe, Idle Motion’s play was such a success that the company decided to turn professional. Developed further in the intervening years Borges and I has been showing at the New Diorama, an excellent London venue that supports original and less-commercial projects.

Episodes from Borges’ life and work are partnered with the more rowdy exchanges of a contemporary book group. The six actors play distinct characters in the Culture-Show-like discussions, most memorably Grace Chapman’s overbearing Hilary, who gives new members a membership pack, including dos, don’ts and some of her own creative writing. How she hasn’t fired Julian Spooner’s laid-back Jim from the group is remarkable, given he turns up to one meeting having read the wrong book. She has a cutting line in put-downs, finding one book they are reading ‘…very three for two.’  Sophie, played by Sophie Cullen finds she cannot read the books quickly enough – like Borges himself she is sliding into blindness. After an awkward romance, newcomer Nick (Joel Gatehouse) helps her with her changing life.

The title might suggest a literary Withnail spoof, but it comes from one of Borges’ own short stories. From the start projections appear on a wheeled screen that will later divide, spin and become two bookcases. Books sit in small piles at the edges of the stage. Pages are thrown into the air and cover the floor. Literature is everywhere. It can transport you, it can become much more than just print on paper. At one point the actors combine to create a flapping flock of birds, each holding up a single book. Less successfully they also create an aeroplane out of books, each holding part of the fuselage and walking it across the stage. Here some of the books have been cut to shape which detracts from the image and underrates the transformative power of books.

Though it depends heavily on projection technology working properly, on stage Borges and I develops out of a failed powerpoint presentation on the writer being given by Kate Stanley’s Alice. The projector breaks, an umbrella opens and the players take over the stories of Borges and Sophie.  Carefully choreographed set pieces are interspersed with the recognisable bickering of opinionated readers. There are many visually rich moments and connections aplenty for the Borges expert to spot.

There is some slow-mo that could be sped up and there are some scenes that could be cut down – you may feel at one point that there is a valid reason why the optician has not become the favourite location of script writers. But overall Borges and I is an absorbing ensemble piece. It is a play for bibliophiles, though if you treat your books with great respect and only flick through them wearing gloves be warned. The results can be elegant but on this stage books get trampled on, chopped about and used as dominoes.

Books were harmed in the making of this play.

Visit the Idle Motion website

Visit the New Diorama website

 

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Pleasance. Miss, why’s he dressed as a Christmas present?

The auditorium for the matinee of A Christmas Carol at the Pleasance was full of babbling school children – and a teacher who could silence them all with one bark. I want bags on the floor, not on your knees, she ordered the entire theatre. If I’d had a bag on my knees I would have strongly considered moving it.

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Dickens wrote his ghostly parable back in 1843 but its tale of redemption remains relevant, as does its belief in the possibility of change, even for bankers. A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the stage many times. Dickens himself re-edited the work and performed dramatic public readings of Scrooge’s experiences. The present adaptation is by Danny Wainwright, performed by Let them Call It Mischief. With added humour the plot follows the well-known story, viz. Scrooge the Meany is visited by three ghosts. They show him the results of his attitudes and behaviours. He has the chance to change and be transformed. Does he take it?

Maximising the comedic possibilities of the play the seven actors romp about the stage, playing over forty different characters in the ninety minutes, Elliot Ross in particular bringing an enjoyable cheer to the busy proceedings. Together they unleash song and dance routines that Dickens almost certainly didn’t perform in his public readings, including a medley of dance styles reminiscent of the Youtube hit Evolution of Dance.

Maxwell Taylor is the beaming, bow-tied narrator, who holds the show together – after starting proceedings reading from the wrong Dickens novel. He humourously interferes with the action, the actors struggling to keep up with his description of what is happening on stage. He argues with the characters, forgets to give some details. At one point he’s still backstage when needed.

Tiny Tim’s role is taken by an unusual actor – he probably doesn’t have much to say at after-show parties and is almost certainly the worst paid of the troupe. He’s got something of the frog about him – if you don’t know the story it must be confusing to see a puppet on stage.  It adds to the fun but reduces the sense of dire poverty that Scrooge’s actions are helping to create.

What engaged the children most? They enjoyed Alyssa Noble’s accidental water spillage and the subsequent, more careful fetching of another drink. They also loved answering rhetorical questions (What day is it? asks Benedict Waring’s genial Scrooge. Up shoot several hands). But most of all they enjoyed Robert Rowe, both dressed as a sparkly, rectangular Christmas present when playing the ghost of…Christmas Present, and wearing a white tutu and dancing with a wand. The British amusement at a man in a dress obviously starts young. The excitement (and subsequent chatting and shushing) peaked every time Marley’s ghost appeared in a blaze of lights and dry ice.

This isn’t a dry, Victorian tale focusing on the poverty of some and the nastiness of others but a celebration of redemption told with humour. Accessible to children, though they might need the story recapping afterwards, which is an issue as much with the supernatural plot as the production. You can imagine the questions the teachers were fielding on the walk home…

So those people were ghosts? 

Why was he dressed as a Christmas present?

And probably most confusing of all for a small child, Why was that man holding a talking frog? 

Find out at the Pleasance until 4th Jan 2015. (Careful if you take any sweets or the teacher might confiscate them…)

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