Right in the heart of the West End, tucked just between Chinatown and Leicester Square lies the aptly named Leicester Square Theatre. Upon descending a set of stairs, you emerge into what feels like the coolest and most laidback theatre in London. There is a buzz of excitement from the audience which only builds when the glittery compere (David Ellis) steps onstage and reveals a drinks trolley with two empty bottles of white wine. That’s when you realise that this production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is certainly not going to be child friendly.
The latest creation of Magnificent Bastard productions, Shit-faced Showtime is the musical sister show of the incredibly successful Shit-faced Shakespeare and follows the same premise: one member of the cast (in this instance, Alan McHale as the scarecrow) gets inebriated before the show and is allowed to be as ridiculous and destructive as they like. Audience members are given various instruments which they can use during the show if they think the actor needs more to drink. The compere has ultimate control and is able to stop the show at any point if they think anything too dangerous/inappropriate is occurring, giving the show a more controlled chaotic feeling and taking away any real concerns about safety from the audience.
Rah Petherbridge’s set is simple and the props are few, giving the cast free rein of the stage. The audience’s attention is focused on the intoxicated individual attempting to move coherently, so little care is given to the simplicity of Meg Matthew’s choreography. The singing is surprisingly impressive, particularly Issy Wroe Wright’s rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. This, and the inclusion of other songs from The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz and Wicked, give the show an almost West End musical feel – an illusion quickly shattered when McHale becomes tangled in the ‘cyclone’ during the first few minutes.
As he could say whatever he wanted, McHale, a talented musical theatre performer, provided most of the comedy in the show, though Nick House’s drag Wicked Witch and Dorothy’s glove puppet Toto contribute a fair part towards the overall whimsicality. It is also elements such as these which allow the drunk actor to improvise and provide witty commentary. For example, were the Tin Man costume not as ridiculous McHale’s comment that the Tin Man was a hipster would have fallen flat. The more he drank, the more control over the show McHale gained until it seemed almost entirely improvised, with the rest of the cast (including Tim Tilley as the Tin Man and Dora Rubinstein as the Lion/Glinda) providing strong support to McHale’s shenanigans. There are always points when lines fall flat because, as anyone who has been drunk before can attest to, people think they are funnier when they are drunk. There were moments towards the end, like the smooth putting on of glasses several times, which suggested that McHale was acting drunker than he was, perhaps to compensate for sobering up, although it must be said that his performance was no less entertaining if this was the case.
The ending itself is somewhat anti-climactic as, unlike a truly improvised show, the finish is largely predetermined (except maybe for the romantic pairing of Dorothy and the scarecrow). This is a small price to pay for the security that the structure of a scripted show brings when dealing with drunk actors – there are many times when entirely improvised shows with drunk actors become catatonic due to a lack of guidelines.
As the cast members take turns to be inebriated (something essential for their Edinburgh Fringe Festival run), and the fact that most, if not all of the jokes, are improvised, it is impossible to say what the future performances of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz will be like. However judging by the success of its run at Brighton Fringe and Shit-faced Shakespeare, it is likely that the show will be just as ludicrous and side-splitting as it was on its London opening night.
Shit-faced Showtime: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is playing Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday until 23rd July 2017. For more information and tickets, see www.leicestersquaretheatre.com
Photo: Rah Petherbridge Photography