Soho Downstairs is currently home to Rob Castell, William Kenning, Pete Sorel-Cameron and Lara Stubbs, publically known as the barbershop quartet Barbershopera. Their show Now that’s what I call Barbershopera!, led by Sarah Tipple, director of the UK and International tours of Dirty Dancing, is an hour of a capella songs penned by Castell and Tom Sadler. Barbershopera formed in 2007 and has won numerous awards over the course of its career thus far, and it’s not hard to see why. It is very, very funny.
The quartet has taken a form many associate with old men in candy stripes with straw hats and canes, and made it young, fresh, relevant and delightfully humourous. The content of their songs is very British, very current and very recognisable, covering experiencing anxiety on the tube, the recent mayoral elections, the Green Party and fancying Kate Middleton.
The quartet is warm and friendly, chatting with the audience between numbers and they know how to backhand hecklers with mouth-shutting one-liners, a skill I’ve always envied and admired. They also dress formally, which gives them a pleasing aesthetic, and makes the props they use and their lyrical content funnier.
Audially, Barbershopera keep it interesting by mashing up styles, performing four part harmonies then mixing them up with energetic rap, or by having one member talking rather than singing over the backing harmonising, and creating beats with claps or drum sticks. They keep you entertained visually too, with mimes and dance moves (of a kind) to the stories within the songs they perform. This is a group capable of amazing facial contortions.
The evening was split into three sections, Barbershopera by themselves, followed by a guest spot from Gary Albert Hughes, actor and singer of Playing It Straight fame (there’s a different guest each night), finishing up with Barbershopera plus the audience. This was a good move as the guest brought a different style (and a pianist) with him, and refreshed the audience for the quartet upon its return.
Hughes performed one number about questing for cocaine in Cancún, and followed this up with the wonderfully hilarious story of Cinderella as narrated by a dyslexic. Word play and linguistic jumbles are always a joy, especially when the words are naughty, with plenty of “cotten runts” and “betty swollocks” swinging all over the shopera. Hughes’s delivery was good, though I did wish at times he would have given a moment to let the meaning of the jumbled words sink in, as recognition wassn’t always immediate – takes a moment or two to be digested, understood and appreciated, but he is still a pleasure to watch.
Post-Hughes, Barbershopera return to the stage to coach the audience through the communal finale, always a nice touch and it ends the happy hour on a high note even for those, like myself, for whom tunes are hot potatoes: impossible to hold.
Barbershopera’s next project is a tuneful take on Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Three Musketeers, which they will be performing at Pleasance 2 at the Edinburgh festival from 1-27 August. Described as “Blackadder meets Gilbert & Sullivan”, you’re sure to have a rib tickling hour with this smart vocal foursome.
Now That’s What I Call Barbershopera! runs at Soho Downstairs until 23 June. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.