wed 19/06/2024

Big Society!, Leeds City Varieties | reviews, news & interviews

Big Society!, Leeds City Varieties

Big Society!, Leeds City Varieties

Chumbawamba and Phill Jupitus do The Good Old Days in a beautifully restored music hall

Phill Jupitus hoofs it up in LeedsTim Smith

You approach the theatre via a cobbled side street and you’re harangued by a Salvation Army officer, pleading with you not to go inside this house of ill-repute. The City Varieties is an under-appreciated jewel of a venue, a Victorian music hall recently reopened after an expensive refit. The carpets are no longer sticky underfoot and the seats are slightly comfier. Fortunately, not much else has changed. This is an extraordinary time capsule of a place.

A two-minute walk from the garish delights of 21st-century Leeds, and it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time. Which is the point. Big Society!’s writer Boff Whalley invites us to return to 1910, an age when “the country was governed by ex-public schoolboys, a country still in the thrall of monarchy and nobility: a country run by the banks, overseen by a cabinet of millionaires”. The audience is greeted raucously as the show starts, welcomed “to an age of buggery, thuggery and skulduggery”. Whalley and Red Ladder Theatre's director Rod Dixon have clearly taken inspiration from the long-running TV series The Good Old Days, which was broadcast from the Varieties from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Lisa Howard, Kyla Goodey and Dean Nolan in Big Society!Phill Jupitus leads the cast in a piece which sometimes sprawls, splutters and creaks as alarmingly as Magic Barry’s rickety Wardrobe of Mystery - to satisfying effect, though, as the component parts do add up to an entertaining night out. Jupitus’s motley troupe spend most of their time bantering in Ali Allen's detailed backstage set, under pressure from their demanding MC (Dean Nolan, partnered with an invisible monkey) to provide a smut-free show. A tabloid hack is intent on closing the performance down. Plot-wise, there’s not a lot more to it. But it provides a nice, baggy framing device for a sequence of witty musical numbers and extended jokes, mostly pretty amusing despite their antediluvian origins.

Jupitus is in his element as a frontman, never funnier than when he’s sparring with the pompous Nolan – watching two big blokes have a comic scrap will always be a pleasure to watch. None of the male leads impress as role models; the strongest character is suffragette Lisa Howard (pictured centre, above right), giving a talented turn as Eve the Escapologist. She confidently predicts that in the distant future, wars and riots won’t exist under Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Sweetest is Harry Hamer as Magic Barry, uncannily credible as a magician of little talent. Kyla Goodey’s naïve Beatrice (pictured below left, with Jupitus) spends the evening searching for life’s meaning, dabbling successively in Islam, Catholicism and Buddhism.

There’s a quietly simmering sense of anger, of indignation, bubbling away under the broad comedy; Whalley’s digs at Coalition policies are predictable but fully deserved, especially in a city already feeling the pain as public sector spending cuts begin to bite. There’s a brief scene where Jupitus and Hamer perform a Cameron/Clegg ventriloquist act – not exactly original, but brilliantly staged and very funny. Whalley’s lyrics are strewn with inventive rhyming couplets (“the doubters, the whingers, the Scottish! The gingers!”) and the onstage band, drawn from the current Chumbawamba line-up, provide classy backing.

Act Two’s pace is much quicker, and there’s even a plot resolution of a sort. The journalist is dispatched, Marcel the Invisible Monkey is made visible (his best lines coming courtesy of Eric Cantona) and the show lives to fight another day. Magic Barry has the last word: “No we’re not in this together/ Cos I can plainly see/ There’s rules for toffs and better-offs/ And different rules for me.” As a breezy, brash, thinking-person’s antidote to all that’s too slick and glossy in contemporary musicals, Big Society! is a triumph.

Watch the trailer for Red Ladder's Big Society!

The City Varieties carpets are no longer sticky underfoot and the seats are slightly comfier. Fortunately, not much else has changed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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