Julian Eaves reviews Tickle, a new musical based around the world of competitive endurance tickling now playing at the King’s Head Theatre London.
16th October 2019
King’s Head Theatre
Chris Burgess is am a clever and talented songwriter who is also one of the great exponents of revue writing in this country, and that puts him in a very select group. Revue is a notoriously ‘difficult’ form, where success depends largely upon being able to spin individual, separately characterised moments, which are strung together around a general ‘theme’ but sufficiently self-contained to be understood on their own, without reference to the rest of the whole.
It is precisely that very skill, that talent, in a revue that makes him not very well suited to writing book-based musical plays. Nonetheless, he has written – and I have seen – several story-based narrative-structured musical comedies, none of which have changed my mind that this great writer of revues is a problematic writer of musicals. And this latest offering from Lambco Productions of a mini chamber musical featuring the quirky milieu of ‘Competitive Endurance Tickling’ is – alas – no exception.
Loosely, and very much more simply, based on the 2016 run-away success New Zealand independent movie, ‘Tickled’, this 75 minute jaunt dispenses with that film’s documentary format, and its really much darker thriller-like moments, and gives us the story of what happens to two hot young guys who somehow find themselves recruited into the unimaginably – and hitherto completely invisible – world of trying to make other hot guys laugh, not by telling them jokes, but by manipulating their bodies with their fingers, or with feathers. The homo-erotic associations of this are, naturally, obsessively denied by the organisers, who like to pretend to themselves – and the hot straight boys they recruit – that it’s all completely innocent. It’s a weird story but is given – initially – a flatly literal and straight-down-the-line dramatic treatment that then causes some fairly jolting transitions when the more lurid characters are brought on.
Thus it is that after the handsome, if a little bit too Sondheim-meets-Urinetown-esque opening number, ‘Drab Town’, we shift tonal zone and have a simply gorgeously integrated duet for the two leads, ‘Beautiful’: this is a fine song indeed and represents Burgess at his very best. If he only wrote – or released – songs of this quality, he would be internationally famous. Then we lurch into the very different, quasi-parlando, uptight, ‘It’s Not Gay’, and find ourselves getting into the one big vice that Burgess has as a songwriter: over-dense lyrics. Even in the dry, intimate acoustic of the miniature King’s Head Pub Theatre, with no amplification resonance and the most ably judged keyboard accompaniment by MD David Eaton, this talented cast regularly has a massive fight on its hands to get through the mouthfuls of syllables that Burgess forces it to utter. Of course, looking again at Sondheim (as I’m sure Burgess often does), it is possible to write rapid passages, provided one takes a great deal of care over which consonants and vowels are used and how they are placed, and – above all – how much of an expositional burden you ask them to carry. The best patter songs are narratively redundant: show-pieces for verbal display. Not so here. We must strain to listen in, fearful of missing plot points.
Ben Brooker, as gay Callum, and James McDowell, as the object of his affections, straight Chris, are only too well aware of this, as they frequently can be seen gasping for breath as they rattle out the trickiest bits of Burgess’ writing. So, too, Amy Sutton as the villainess, Davina Diamond. Hats off to all three for giving it a good old go, but it’s an uphill struggle for them. Richard Watkin’s drag act, Tina Tickle, fares rather better, getting generally glitzier, more melody-driven ‘show tunes’ for her high camp persona – including leading the really rather smashing closing number, ‘What Would Julie Andrews Do?’. But Watkins’ own Golgotha can be found in the perilous upper register which he is regularly asked to surmount, without – quite – having it in his range to do so.
Honestly, why, with a brand new show, with which they can do what they will, do writers expose their casts to such difficulties? This happens all the time. I find it frankly impossible to believe that the MD and the thoughtfully intelligent and sensitive director, Robert McWhir did not, on more than one occasion, politely suggest re-writes to accommodate the particular skills of the cast they happen to have. Maybe I’m wrong: I don’t know this to be a fact, but I think it is very unlikely that nobody noticed the score’s pitfalls, or – if they did – that they failed to say something about them.
Be all that as it may, the show is beautifully lit – by the producer – and given, at least in the belatedly glamorous finale – some pleasing moves by choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane. The design is minimal – inhabiting a draped set for the show done earlier in the evening – but the costumes are contemporary and ultimately include a lot of feathers. I took a friend along who knows nothing about musicals, and he liked it. Those with more practised, critical eyes may find parts of it less easy to accept.
Until 26 October 2019 at the King’s Head Theatre