Review: A Pissedmas Carol at Leicester Square Theatre

We all know the basic plot of A Christmas Carol by now, right? Scrooge is a wealthy but stingy old man who hates Christmas, people and life in general. Then one Christmas Eve he gets visited by lots of ghosts, who show him the error of his ways and make him a new man by Christmas morning.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge Photography

That’s how it’s supposed to go, anyway. But all bets are off in this riotous production from Shit-faced Showtime – due to the fact that one member of the cast has got good and drunk before the show begins. The chosen one at each show (at press night it was Daniel Quirke, although for obvious reasons it’s a rotating duty) then proceeds to cause as much merry mayhem as possible, while their fellow actors, a compere dressed as Charles Dickens, and various audience members – as you might expect, this is a front row beware kind of show – gamely attempt to keep things moving along in vaguely the right direction.

Despite being familiar with the work of Magnificent Bastards – who first founded Shit-faced Shakespeare, before branching out with Shit-faced Showtime – this was my first time seeing them in action, and the show was exactly as silly and outrageous as expected. Though there’s occasionally the faint sense that the jokes may not be quite as out of the blue as they appear, the abilities of the rest of the cast to run with whatever happens on stage – aggressively floating mince pies, inappropriate observations about the wallpaper, bizarre new personal greetings – are impressive, and the results predictably enjoyable.

While the primary objective of the show is comedic chaos, and the apparent mission of the drunk is to sabotage proceedings as much as possible, what’s clever about the format is that there’s still a proper performance to be enjoyed here too. The fundamentals of the plot and script we know are all in place – albeit with a few unexpected tweaks of which Mr Dickens might not entirely approve – and the various festive musical numbers in Katy Baker’s production are beautifully performed (Issy Wroe Wright’s heartfelt Last Christmas is a particular stand-out moment). This gives the audience a bit of a breather from the relentless mayhem, and allows us to appreciate the talents of the actors not only as comedians but also as serious performers.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge Photography

If you’re easily offended by drinking, swearing, nose-licking (don’t ask)… you should perhaps give this show a miss, and maybe go and see a more traditional production of A Christmas Carol; there are, after all, always plenty to choose from in London. If, on the other hand, you’re tired of watching regular adaptations, you fancy a change from panto, or you just like the idea of watching a very good actor make an absolute fool of themselves on stage while several other very good actors try and keep a straight face – A Pissedmas Carol is well worth a visit for an hour of good-natured silliness, great entertainment and copious amounts (quite literally) of Christmas spirit.

A Pissedmas Carol is at Leicester Square Theatre until 5th January.

Review: Murder, She Didn’t Write at Leicester Square Theatre

It’s not often you get to start a review of a murder mystery by revealing whodunnit, but here goes: it was Scarlett, in the cattery, with a seatless unicycle (I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination). And I can tell you all this with a clear conscience because Murder, She Didn’t Write from Bristol-based improv company Degrees of Error is, by its very nature, different every time. It’s also extremely silly, slightly nonsensical and very, very funny.

Going in, the cast know as much as we do – that someone’s about to die, and that someone else dunnit. The details of where and how are provided by the audience at the start of the show, while the identities of killer and victim are surreptitiously selected by “Jerkins”, a.k.a. an unsuspecting member of the audience drafted in to play Detective Genevieve Foxcroft’s incompetent assistant. (Nothing to be alarmed about if you’re averse to a bit of audience participation – it’s a crucial but not particularly demanding role.)

Photo credit: Jamie Corbin

Equipped with the bare bones, the cast of six (on this occasion Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Tom Bridges, Caitlin Campbell and Rachael Procter-Lane – accompanied by musical director Sara Garrard on piano) spend the next couple of hours working their magic live on stage, rapidly pulling out of the hat a convoluted tale about some clowns and a taxidermist who are, naturally, invited to celebrate a cat’s birthday. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s not like anybody’s there looking for a coherent plot. What we want – and what we get – is to see a talented cast of comedy actors adapting to every bizarre new twist, whilst doing their best to put each other off their stride at every possible opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, there’s no shortage of running jokes, particularly inspired at this show by the helpful audience suggestion of a cat’s birthday, which proved to be the source of exactly as much innuendo as you might imagine. We also got recurring gags about the dubious merits of being French, an extremely flimsy broom cupboard, the correct way to pronounce Bicester, and the ever-increasing age of two of the characters (who certainly didn’t look like they were in their eighties…) Some lines work better than others, but that’s to be expected and forgiven in a show of this kind; besides, the pace of the show is such that any awkward moments are quickly forgotten, and/or plunged into darkness with expert comic timing by lighting designer Alex Hoyle.

Like any ingenious magic trick, you can’t help but wonder from time to time just how they do it. But there are no smoke and mirrors here; although we have to assume some kind of framework exists before the show begins, the crowd-pleasing success of Murder, She Didn’t Write lies with the quick thinking of a clever and extraordinarily versatile cast.

And Jerkins, obviously.

Review: Mirrors at Leicester Square Theatre

In a world of fashion magazines, social media, online dating and reality TV, who needs a magic mirror to remind you every day that you’re not the fairest – or funniest, or coolest, or most talented – of them all? In darkly humorous modern fairytale Mirrors, Siobhan McMillan draws on her own experiences to examine our obsession with measuring our own self-worth based on the perception of others, and the desperate places that obsession can take us to.

Photo credit: Thomas Aston

Vlogger ShyGirl is excited – not only does she now have eight YouTube subscribers, she also has a new boyfriend, Mikey, who’ll be here any minute. Mikey, however, doesn’t sound to us like much of a catch, and when he inevitably doesn’t show up, ShyGirl’s fragile self-esteem is crushed. In a fit of rage, she conjures up a gorgeous, confident alter ego, Shivvers, who’s a distant relative of Snow White’s evil stepmother. Shivvers has her own magic mirror, which dutifully tells her every day that she’s the most beautiful in the land… until one day it doesn’t. Horrified and furious, she sets out to find and destroy her competition, but ultimately discovers only other women who are secretly as messed up and neurotic as she is.

Directed by Gabi Maddocks, Mirrors is a short, punchy and action-packed solo show, which takes us on an epic journey through a brand new fairytale land. Writer and performer Siobhan McMillan is a gifted storyteller, bringing her characters and surroundings to life with the aid of a few props, some impressive physical characterisation, and a lot of imagination. She’s also very funny, frequently diverting from the traditional fairytale script and in doing so making her character much more relatable than your standard Disney villain; Shivvers might be a terrifying ice queen on a murderous quest, but she also drinks, swears, and gets bored, hungry and grumpy just like the rest of us.

Photo credit: Thomas Aston

As laugh out loud funny as the show frequently is, however, anyone hoping for a fairytale ending for Shivvers (or ShyGirl) will be disappointed. This surreal adventure ends as it began: having failed to find her rival, she returns home alone, still begging her broken mirror/laptop for reassurance. It’s a gloomy note to end on, but feels appropriate given that the universal quest for perfection – whether you’re a Shivvers or a ShyGirl – is one that seems unlikely ever to be over.

Frequently bizarre, and occasionally downright baffling, Mirrors is a unique experience. The show tackles some serious questions in an entertaining and humorous way, and while it doesn’t offer any constructive solutions, in reflecting back to us our own anxieties and fears, it does make us feel a little bit less alone.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: House on Haunted Hill at Leicester Square Theatre

You know you’re in for an interesting evening at the theatre when you’re greeted by a man in a biohazard suit handing out ping pong balls. For those who saw the Lampoons’ last show, Attack of the Giant Leeches, this will come as no surprise. For those who didn’t, get ready for quite the experience, as the team return with their latest production, House on Haunted Hill. Based (incredibly loosely, one suspects) on the 1959 Vincent Price movie of the same name, it features a special guest appearance from “Vincent Price” himself, complete with questionable moustache and wildly fluctuating accent.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

The plot, such as it is, revolves around four unsuspecting guests invited by Mr Price to stay the night in a haunted house. If they make it through, they’ll win $10,000 – which we’re reminded in the programme was a lot of money back then. Cue severed heads in suitcases, blood dripping from the ceiling, and a balaclava ballet band performing Swan Lake (what do you mean, that wasn’t in the movie?).

It very quickly becomes clear – if the ping pong balls didn’t already make the point – that this is not a show we’re supposed to take seriously, or even really understand; I’m none the wiser as to what actually happens in the film. Despite the name, it’s not very scary – but it is extremely silly, and who doesn’t love a bit of silliness every now and again?

Responsible for all this mayhem is a cast of very funny actors – Adam Elliott, Oliver Malam, Christina Baston and Josh Harvey (and guests) – who don’t mind making complete fools of themselves or potentially getting hurt and/or choking on a pickle. (This is particularly entertaining when you’ve seen two of them before in very serious plays…) Anyone who enjoys the antics of Mischief Theatre will recognise the same talent here for making chaos look effortless. The Lampoons operate on a significantly smaller budget, but they don’t let that stop them; quite the opposite – they embrace their limitations and turn them to their advantage, with hilariously dodgy effects, props and accessories that are just one more source of laughs. After a while it becomes hard to tell what’s planned and what just sort of happens, but the cast take it all in their stride, with just the occasional mid-scene fit of helpless giggles. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say front row beware, it’s worth knowing that audience participation is enthusiastically encouraged and responded to by the actors.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

As a result, it should come as no surprise that we frequently meander away entirely from the plot – though in some cases this is (again, quite deliberately and openly) just a ploy to keep us occupied while someone gets changed for the next scene. If you like to follow everything that’s going on, this may not be the show for you. If, on the other hand, you quite like not having a clue what might happen next, you’ll love it. And if you’re a fan of Vincent Price movies… well, you might just be a bit confused.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Jennifer Sutherland, Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales

Jennifer Sutherland is co-founder of Scamp Theatre, the multi award-winning team that brought us West End hit Stick Man: Live on Stage. In 2016, she launched a new company, Freckle Productions, whose focus is on bringing inspirational stories to the stage for children, young people and families.

“Freckle started in 2016 after the co-founders of Scamp decided after many happy years of working together, that we wanted to pursue our own projects,” Jennifer explains. “Freckle gathered its skirts, bought some chickens, acquired an extra dog and a lost cat and set off to tell stories, big and small.”

And they’re doing just that at Leicester Square Theatre this summer, with the return of Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales – a live stage show featuring four of the most loved books from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler: Tiddler, Monkey Puzzle, A Squash and a Squeeze and The Smartest Giant in Town. All four books are brought to life through puppetry, music and a host of adorable characters.

Former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson and internationally acclaimed illustrator Axel Scheffler are the team behind countless popular children’s books, among them The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, as well as Stick Man and the stories featured in Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales. “As co-founder and director of Scamp Theatre, I was fortunate enough to be approached by Julia herself after she saw two of our other shows,” says Jennifer. “She loved the productions and wanted to know if we could bring any of her books to the stage. We were only too pleased to work with her – who wouldn’t be!”

Photo credit: Robin Savage

So is this just a show for kids? “Yes! No! Maybe!” debates Jennifer. “Of course, children do love it – these are their stories after all and they feel they own them and know them, but they’re not just for children. The production is full of wit, charm and storytelling – suitable for any age.

“What one word would we like our audiences to use to describe the show…? Magical! Or amazing! Can I have two?”

As Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales returns to the West End for a two-month run, Jennifer and the team are excited to share their own enthusiasm for these irresistible stories with new audiences. “Firstly, it is lovely to be back at Leicester Square Theatre,” she says. “It’s such a welcoming venue for everyone, the audience and everyone who works on the show. It’s also great to see the smiling faces of the audience as they leave the show every day. 

“Come and see some of your favourite books brought to life! Children know these stories and these characters and they love seeing them brought to life. But there’s another reason too – something magical happens in a theatre when you have one group of people telling another a tale they love so much.”

Photo credit: Robin Savage

And what of Freckle Productions’ future plans? “Well, Freckle is still producing Tiddler and also co-producing Stick Man: Live on Stage with Scamp,” says Jennifer. “However we are excited to be developing some bigger projects in the future. Scamp started as a perfectly formed smaller scale theatre company – Freckle is going to be creating some much larger work with some exciting artist collaborations in the future. Watch this space!”

Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 3rd September.