Anarchy in the Emerald City

Review by Ben Shillito

Nobody’s here for the story. As the Scarecrow points out, while nursing a pint and grinning fiercely, ‘Sure, no-one’s seen this fucking story before …’ Dorothy blushes, wondering whether her straw-headed friend was joking when he told her he was gay, or if it was his later pronouncement, that he wants to come back to Kansas and fuck her brains out, that was serious. Either way, Dorothy and her glove-puppet dog are a long way from home right now, and the audience are hanging on a drunk Irishman’s every eye-rolling pratfall while a lanky cross-dressing Wicked Witch plays a laconic keyboard.

The history of theatre is full of toe-curling anecdotes about drunk actors, and it is that illicit thrill that the Magnificent Bastards, aka the Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare company, have tapped into. The shtick is impressively simple – a handful of performers, a stock text, and some alcohol. A lot of alcohol. So much alcohol, in fact, that when the curtain rises, one of the cast (chosen randomly the day of the performance) is stumblingly, anarchically paralytic. And it’s a shtick that works so well, delighting audiences at festivals and going down a storm in regular London seasons, that the bard-manglers have taken the entirely logical step of branching out into musical theatre. 

To an extent, you could compare the Sh*t-Faced brand to any number of young theatre companies whose stock in trade is self-awareness. The Mischief Theatre, for instance, has made an absolute bundle with The Play That Goes Wrong, spreading their wings with a glorious adaptation of Peter Pan and an original-cast Broadway transfer, but Mischief’s chaos is scripted and timed and intricately staged; the Magnificent Bastards are pulling the same trick without a net. And it’s bastard magnificent.

A glittery-shirted compere (a grinning, charming David Ellis) starts the night off, wryly cupping the audience in the palm of his hand and laying down the rules of the evening – one of the cast, he tells us, has consumed ‘not one, not two, but nearly two bottles’ of the theatre’s overpriced white plonk, while top-up beers will be administered at the whim of audience members or Ellis himself. Buckets are positioned, the lights go down, and we are off to pre-twister Kansas. 

Ellis later informs me that this show is un-reviewable, a challenge I am pleased to accept. A cast of five dash on to the stage, brimming with drama-school glee, and it is quickly apparent that one of the Kansas farmhands is not like the others. His eyes are bulging, his movements uncoordinated, and he is grinning like a lunatic. The audience starts to laugh and doesn’t stop for an hour. 

Alan McHale, a slight, flame-haired Irishman with a lithe physicality and a stonking voice (when he can remember the words) is a fabulously disruptive influence on L Frank Baum’s story, whether as a puzzled farmhand, a gobby Munchkin or in his main role, the future king of Oz himself, the Scarecrow. He breaks character, forgets his lines, tells the audience when a good bit is coming (the script is short, brisk and slight and it doesn’t matter in the least), bickers with the compere, and necks constant pints with game good grace. 

Tamsyn Kelly’s direction and Meg Matthews’ choreography are grist to the mill of McHale’s mischief, and the rest of the cast play along perfectly. Tom Tilley’s Tin Man is given little to do but has an air of determination which suits his role, and Nick House switches from unsettlingly tall Wicked Witch to stoner Wizard to keyboard player with laid-back, almost sleepy stoicism. 

And then we come to the girls. 

Issy Wroe Wright and Dora Rubinstein are the brains behind tonight’s adventure – friends from drama school who regularly perform together without a drop of booze in sight, they are the producers of this play, and Wroe Wright’s blushing Dorothy is a perfect anchor to the production and an apt foil to McHale’s antics. Rubinstein switches from farmhand to Glinda to Lion with a few costume changes, and her knowing joy fills the stage. Musically, the show is doing nothing new – the songs are recycled and tweaked from Wicked, The Wiz, and the MGM movie, but the cast are adept enough at what they do to hit every note and keep smiling while McHale’s inspired ad-libs derail the story and put the audience in stitches. 

By the time the Scarecrow has clarified that it is only his alter-ego, Alan, who is gay, and that he himself is rather keen on getting into Dorothy’s pants and staying there, Wroe Wright accepts his attentions, his sloppy kisses (at one point he screams song lyrics into her mouth at full blast) and then his sudden stumbling disappearance with aplomb. This drunken redhead is disruptive, he’s unpredictable, he’s passionate, and then he’s gone. He’s pretty much like every drunken charmer who slips away before the night bus comes, and Dorothy returns to Kansas bereft, but a little wiser for her time with McHale. Also, covered in drool.

The audience, too, has grown as people as they buzz out of the theatre into the boiling evening, and the smiles on everyone’s faces are a testament to a job well done by Wroe Wright, Rubinstein and the rest of the magnificent Magnificent Bastards.

 

Sh*t-Faced Showtime: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is showing on Sunday nights at the Leicester Square Theatre throughout July, before transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe for the whole of August.

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