Being taught how to unicycle and juggle in a public space while strangers glance at you as they walk by, is exactly the kind of hilariously random situation that can only be enjoyed by spending time with the cast of Slightly Fat Features, who will be bringing their show back to the Roundhouse this month.
I meet Rich and Lee, two of the seven permanent cast members of this comedic variety show, on a sunny day in Covent Garden. Their seemingly curious name becomes unambiguous when Lee explains, “The show is packed full of stuff: routines, visual motifs and comedy. People have said you come away from the show feeling full but not gluttonously so.”
The name might also have derived from the need to encapsulate all forms of their art; to allow them to encompass theatre, street theatre, film, or whatever the ensemble might decide to do.
The pair give me a taste of the show in a busy public churchyard. Rich captivates me, as well as casual on-lookers, by juggling and riding his unicycle at the same time. However my amusement is abruptly cut short when he asks if I want to try my luck on the one-wheeled vehicle. My attempt leaves me with a strong conviction that anyone who is able to ride a unicycle must have balance and co-ordination of magical proportions. My first attempt at juggling however does suggest that I have some trick performing potential: I might develop into a capable juggler if I practise for 5 hours, daily. For a year.
Lee, the escapologist of the group, gives onlookers further delight when he tries painfully yet successfully to escape from layers of Clingfilm that Rich has wrapped tightly around his body and head. I notice a crowd gather in my peripheral vision as Lee used a finger to poke a hole in the Clingfilm surrounding his crotch, and then another finger to make a different type of hole, through the rear side. These fingers act as firm grips and aide Lee in escaping from the entrapment in exactly a minute, as timed by a friendly and enthused American tourist.
What really sets this production apart is the spontaneous merging of the individual acts into ensemble pieces, and the ability of the acts to tickle the funny bones of people of all ages and backgrounds. “There’s lots of ensemble work,” Lee says, contrasts with the independent nature of acts in a lot of variety shows. “Rich gets into a cardboard box,” he continues in a description of one of their ensemble pieces, “and Goronwy and I, with wonderful musical compliment, will skewer the box with 21 umbrellas. Quite how Rich comes out unscathed is beyond me.”
Rich and Lee work with five other multi-talented performers to form Slightly Fat Features. There is also Goronwy Thom – a juggler, unicyclist, veteran cruise ship worker and all round showman who compères the show. Rob Lee is the group’s multi-talented musician who can play any instrument and any tune, and whom Rich insists is “An annoyingly talented guy. We couldn’t do the show without him.”
Matt Barnard is also a man of many musical instruments, a drummer, juggler, and a comedian with very dry humour. Lee muses that Matt can “Often be found sitting on the drums passing disparaging comments about what he sees on stage.” He also, I hear, does a fantastic beer juggling routine. Jon Hicks completes speed paintings that have earned the nicknames ‘quick and flip’ and ‘splash and dash’, and finally, of course, there is the resident clown Herbie Treehead. Herbie is anarchic, and at the Roundhouse he will be doing his world famous ‘cup and ball’, which Lee declares “Truly has to be seen to be believed.”
The group’s strength is in their friendship, which their various audiences often pick up on, commenting on how much fun the performers look like they are having on stage. “It’s not a bunch of acts that don’t know each other,” Rich explains. “That’s our strength. We’re a touring company.”
And there has been positive feedback internationally as well, Lee tells me in his best French accent what a French reporter said to the producer of a festival they were performing at in Normandy: “At last, ze English can be funny!”
Both men nod in agreement that burlesque and cabaret are resurgent, and that variety in particular is coming back into vogue. What more reason do you need to go and see a show?
“Come and see the show,” Rich says, “make your own opinions about it, and then tell your friends.” What have you got to lose? It’s not like they’ll pull you up in front of a watchful audience and attempt to teach you to ride a unicycle. Or will they?
Slightly Fat Features: Variety in the House runs at the Roundhouse from 19-23 April. Tickets are £10 (£8) and are available from here.
Photos by: Tatyana Guttmann Hancocks