The Styx, former ambulance depot turned bar and performance space, current home of Theatre N16 and venue for Say My Name is soon to meet its fate. Last week they resignedly tweeted “we’ve always known we were going to fall to the bulldozers but our time has truly now come”. As the latest of many victims of North London’s redevelopments, it’s not the first home that fringe theatre company Theatre N16 has to give up on.
Still, for now the show must go on. And this particular show is really something. 62 episodes of the hit US TV drama Breaking Bad have been condensed into a one-act musical parody performance with 35 songs and six performers by writer and composer Rob Gathercole. It’s an intriguing premise to say the least.
In the programme Gathercole jokes that ‘if you’re reading this message then it means that our production has not yet been shut down due to the crippling cost of an expensive lawsuit’. A British copyright law concerning parodies came into effect in October 2014 condoning ‘fair use’ of any copying of copyrighted material if ‘done for a limited and transformative purpose’. This loophole exists to give life to productions such as this, and I’m glad it does.
Before entering the performance space the audience is forewarned that the performance contains strong language, adult themes, gunshots, male nudity, symbols associated with Nazism and haze. So you already know you’re in for an exciting time.
For those not in the know, Breaking Bad has consistently been rated by critics and audiences as one of the best TV series of all time since it first hit the small screen in 2008. One of Netflix’s early triumphs, Gathercole even attributes the coining of the now omnipresent term ‘bingewatching’ to its success. Say My Name parodies the story of an Albuquerque high-school chemistry teacher Walter White, who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and subsequently turns to cooking methamphetamine in order to cover the cost of his treatment and provide for his family after he is gone. Recruiting former student Jesse, the two become embroiled in drug gangs, cartels, seedy lawyers, crooked authorities and neo-nazis throughout the five seasons of the show. Though Walt starts out with noble intentions, he loses himself along the way and becomes an ‘anti-hero’.
Gathercole’s retelling is somewhat more light-hearted in nature, encompassing catchy songs that bounce around your head for hours afterwards and plenty of self-referential meta-humour. You have to love it when someone puts so much intelligence and effort into something so utterly silly and niche.
The Styx’s ramshackle performance space lends itself perfectly to a show like this, which comedically plays up its lack of budget. It feels almost immersive, right down to the way in which we are welcomed in: ‘The house is open…. Bitch’.
Matt Tweddle absolutely nails the characterisation of Walter White, which includes the admirable commitment of shaving his head and dying his beard orange. The other five actors on stage all demonstrate impressive versatility and talent in both their many, many multi-roles and their musical talents. The show features a saxophone, banjo, ukulele and kazoo in addition to several guitars, a full drum kit and a violin.
As much as the show mocks its subject matter, it is clear that all the ribbing comes from a place of love and admiration for the series; it rewards faithful fans for their knowledge of the show and lampoons it in places where criticism is valid, for example the all-too-convenient plot devices and heavy-handed symbolism. That said, Say My Name also manages to tap into the serious moral conflict at the heart of the show.
There is still room for improvement in the show, though; it dances around ableism or exaggerating characters’ disabilities for laughs. Some of the musical numbers, the reprisals in particular, feel unnecessary or overly long (side note for the small-bladdered: it’s an hour and 45 minutes long with no interval). But then, there are moments of sheer brilliance; I’ve never seen wooden-spoon puppets used to such hilarious effect, and the silent-movie re-enactment of a train heist is absolutely inspired.
For anyone who loves Breaking Bad as much as Gathercole clearly does, it is a must-see. This is exactly the kind of irreverent theatre that makes excellent use of the parody law. Productions like this should keep getting made, rather than the spaces that allow them to exist being turned into yet more luxury flats.
Say My Name is playing at Theatre N16 at The Styx until 2 November. For more information and tickets, click here.