“We’ve got to roar and cheer and stuff,” a lady sat two rows in front of me emphatically instructed her companion just before Slightly Fat Features took the stage last Tuesday evening, “it’s press night!” she added ominously. Looking back she needn’t have wasted her breath as for the next two hours the Leicester Square Theatre was filled with a cacophony of belly laughs, contagious giggles, astonished squeals and choruses of foot-stamping approval.
Variety Soup, the latest offering from this troupe of old-hat street performers and comedy comperes, produced by Mick Perrin, is a self-proclaimed reinvention of classic British entertainment. Between these seven eager chaps a number of Vaudevillian specialities are brought back to the West End stage with ferocious energy. There’s an impressive three-man, nine pin juggling routine to start the show, curiously sinister puppetry performances by deadpan master Jon Hicks, a heartwarming sing-along led by disaster magnet Herbie Treehead, Richard Garaghty’s scarily sensual send up of Siegfried and Roy, and not forgetting Gareth Jones’s bizarre butterfly-inspired cling film escapology. It’s bloody good old fashioned silliness, with a rough around the edges style, lovingly held together by charismatic MC Goronwy Thom. And as Variety Soup switches between modernised magic tricks and giddying acrobatics, live music led by prog-rock throwback Rob Lee and Matt ‘I’ll do it for a biscuit’ Bernard keeps the spirits high.
It did take a little while for the audience to warm up, partly due to typical British stoicism and partly because the pacing of the early acts was a bit squiffy. But once the performers found their stride, even the stoniest-faced patrons were hard pushed to resist cracking a smile. You see, there is something inherently likeable about the Features – a combination of their impressive array of skills, both circus and comedic, their undeniable love for their medium and their relentless unwillingness to take things too seriously. Things go wrong (one bit with an audience member and a diabolo took nearly six attempts to get right) and they just take it in their Ministry of Silly Walks stride, consummate professionals with a quick quip always at the ready.
I’m surprised that the variety format hasn’t massively taken off again in recent years – what with the seaside postcard naughtiness and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ nostalgia it evokes whilst simultaneously delivering short and sweet acts well suited to the attention span of our Twitter generation. If these Sirs of slapstick play their cards right the jovial buffoonery and sharp, sneaky wit of Variety Soup has real mass appeal potential. And if that means there’ll be more good-hearted, highly skilled comedy out there I for one will roar and cheer to that.
Slightly Fat Features in Variety Soup is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre until 29 December. For more information and tickets, see the Leicester Square Theatre.