When I learned that one-man mime act The Boy With Tape On His Face would be playing a full-length show for one night at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, I wondered how a performer could sustain a show of that scale alone. As it turns out, the Boy is disappointingly absent from most of the show, but in Cornucopia The Boy still achieves something actually quite remarkable.
The show is introduced as a ‘cornucopia’ of theatre designed to overthrow television, skipping from act to act as if the audience is channel-hopping between channels of live theatre. This provides a facility for an assorted jumble of what we assume to be The Boy’s favourite contemporary variety acts; thus a West End audience finds itself watching a woman dressed as a bee tap-dancing to ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, and a comedian who catches a cabbage on his spiked helmet flung at him by a home-made catapult at the other end of the stage. The Boy has managed to smuggle dozens of variety acts into the West End under his own name, and has given them a platform that they might never have gained on their own.
Notable acts include The Noise Next Door, who invent a hilarious boy band-style love ballad on the spot for an audience member, as well as Joe Black’s wailing minor-key version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ accompanied by the accordion. Burlesque queen Lili La Scala sings us ‘I Google You’, deadpan comic John Moloney tickles us with the hypocrisy of the RSPCA, and the Gein’s Family Gift Shop made me absolutely howl with their sketch about a gorilla learning sign language. There are fabulous smeary-faced, coke-sniffing ballerinas, a mind-reader who can’t read minds, and a man doing an impression of a raptor to the Jurassic Park theme music. Because why not? Not to mention a surprise appearance by the legendary magician Paul Daniels.
The choice of venue, though historically apt given the Palace Theatre’s relationship with variety in the early twentieth century, perhaps holds the show back slightly, as performances mostly designed for cabaret clubs and fringe venues seem slightly agoraphobic in the large auditorium. At one point, comedian Terry Alderton’s Gollum-esque alter ego growls “The ones on the bottom [in the stalls] understand, but the ones on the top [pointing to the gallery] don’t”, aptly acknowledging that this kind of theatre needs proximity between performer and audience, and is damaged by the segregating grandeur of a gilded proscenium arch. There were also problems with the tech which badly let down the show, affecting almost every single performer: most unforgivably, some of the comedians were left floundering in excruciating post-punchline limbo, unable to exit until their light had gone to blackout. It also feels as though more could have been done with the ‘television’ design concept, which doesn’t make the most of the well-edited and entertaining snippets of terrible TV from over the years that flash up on a screen in between acts.
The overall effect is that of an Edinburgh Fringe-flavoured Britain’s Got Talent, clips of which are cleverly and self-consciously featured in the video interludes. However, this talent show comes without the smooth-edged squeaky-cleanliness of BGT, instead offering us an exciting peek into the wilder side of theatre from our comfortable plush red seats. After all, variety is the spice of life.
For for more information on The Boy With Tape On His Face and upcoming shows, see The Boy With Tape On His Face website.