[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/62741?ns=guardian&pageName=It%27s+a+riot+%E2%80%93+Chumbawamba+does+panto%3AArticle%3A1310565&ch=Music&c3=Guardian&c4=Jazz+%28Music+genre%29%2CWorld+music+%28Music+genre%29%2CMusic%2CPanto+season%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Iain+Aitch&c7=09-Nov-26&c8=1310565&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Music&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FMusic%2FJazz[/img]The next stop on Chumbawamba's varied career path is panto for adults – Riot, Rebellion and Bloody Insurrection. And the band and cast are on hilarious form, writes Iain Aitch
'I preferred them when they were electric. That one about getting knocked down, I can do that on the bagpipes," says actor Dean Nolan, swaggering across the stage. Behind him in the former Methodist church rehearsal room stand Chumbawamba, the Leeds anarchists turned pop history footnote, whose name only comes back to most people when their 1997 hit Tubthumping is played over sports highlights packages.
After their chart success the band moved to more folky, often a cappella, tunes, though they still speak up on unfashionable leftwing causes, from workers' rights to the plight of refugees, meaning they are frequently depicted by the music press as po-faced politicos. But Chumbawamba are enjoying Nolan's wry ribbing: the line is from a script co-written by the band's Boff Whalley.
Riot, Rebellion and Bloody Insurrection: A Musical Comedy is a Christmas pantomime, as imagined by Chumbawamba and the Red Ladder theatre company, and it is very much written for adults. It is also set in and aimed squarely at an audience in the north of England. "It came out of getting drunk in the pub with Rod Dixon [Red Ladder's artistic director]," says Whalley. "We were saying you should be able to write panto for adults that is not [Jim Davidson's] Boobs in the Wood."
The work began life as a collaboration between Whalley and writing partner Dom Grace, with the idea of using the odd Chumbawamba track in the background. But the comic script grew into something far more ambitious, as it follows the story of Ernest Hardgristle (Nolan), a 19th-century mill owner who is having something of a problem with Luddites and his sassy seditionary maid Elsie Proud, to the backing of a mix of new folk tunes and reworked songs from Chumbawamba's pop period.
Rather than simply providing the music from an orchestra pit, the band are part of the action on stage, reacting to lines thrown at them from the cast. "The actors can speak to the band. We are on stage, in costume, so we have to get involved," says Whalley.
One man already familiar with some of featured songs is former Chumbawamba drummer-turned-actor Harry Hamer, who left the band in 2005. Hamer appears as the verbose local politician Robert "Two Coaches" Catchpenny, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a character who featured in Chumbawamba's other moment in the spotlight. At 1998's Brit Awards, the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, was doused with iced water by Chumbawamba's Danbert Nobacon – protesting against what the band saw as the Labour Party's betrayal of striking dock workers.
The band are still quietly fuming over the content of Prescott's ghosted autobiography Prezza, in which he claims he dealt Nobacon one of his famous jabs at the Brits, seeing the singer get knocked down and, presumably, get up again.
"We have all read that bit at WH Smith in the station," says Jude Abbott, making it clear that none of the band has forked out for a signed copy.
"We used Prescott," says Whalley of the caricature, "because he is meant to represent people like us and he just doesn't. We are going to Hull on this tour. I think we will have to say something when we are there."
As well as being set in the north, Riot, Rebellion and Bloody Insurrection will, initially, only be playing in the north of England. Opening next week in Bury and finishing in Gateshead, the play will attempt to reclaim the word Luddite and tell the story of the workers who smashed automated looms to save their livelihoods, rather than simply because of a fear or misunderstanding of machinery.
"The story is very local to this tour," says Dixon, whose Red Ladder company was founded during the 1968 Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam war protests. "We were looking to put it on in working men's clubs, but there are hardly any left."
"Lack of jobs, lack of working men," chips in Hamer.
Watching the rehearsal it is clear that there is no "them and us" between band and actors. Jo Mousley improvises as Elsie Proud and cleans Abbott's trumpet in one scene. In another, Chumbawamba's Neil Ferguson downs his bass and stands in as a hangman, while accordion player Phil Moody also acts as narrator and Elsie's love interest. But what strikes most is how well it all hangs together. Nolan, who is just 26 years old, is obviously destined for quite a career, coming on like Brian Blessed with ballet training, digging out laughs with lusty innuendo.
The play may be about politics, but it is far from the politically-correct screed that Chumbawamba's many detractors may expect. What you do get is a kind of northern music hall, complete with knob gags. And it is often laugh-out-loud funny. There is a certain ramshackle nature to the production, and audience participation – in the true panto spirit – is encouraged. But the comic timing is mostly spot on, right down to a Sex Pistols gag and the somewhat unexpected inclusion of excerpts from both the Mastermind theme tune and the Fall's Mr Pharmacist.
Followers of the band will recognise some of the songs used in the musical, though not always the vocalist or the lyrics, as the actors sing them in character and the words refer to 1810 rather than the 21st century. So fast-food counters become alehouses and Hungarian rebels become Yorkshire weavers.
"It is kind of unreal, being the lead singer of Chumbawamba," says Nolan, who, as Hardgristle, conjures up a pre-Dickensian Scrooge when singing about crushing rebellion.
This temporary change of personnel and style should not overly bother the die-hards who have followed the band since their inception in 1982. They will have witnessed changes that took Chumbawamba through discordant punk, Stone Roses-influenced dance music, the wholesale sampling of other band's choruses and paeans to the English folk tradition, so panto won't be too much of a stretch.
"One thing with us is that we teach people not to expect what they have come to expect," says Whalley. "The politics won't change. But musically almost anything goes, except death metal."
"Though we have got that tritone chord on the new album, which all metal bands use," says Abbott, of ABCDEFG, which will be released in March.
The new album tackles the history of music, which includes references to everything from songs sung in the trenches to Simon Cowell and Metallica's James Hetfield – though, for now, Chumbawamba are focused on enlivening British industrial history, crafting gags about William Pitt the Younger and getting competitive about who has the best breeches. It may be fair to say "It's behind you" as far as chart success goes, but the future of this ever-changing band looks increasingly innovative and, dare I say it, fun.
Riot, Rebellion and Bloody Insurrection is at the Met, Bury on 2 December and the Viaduct, Halifax on 3 and 4 December, then touring. Details: www.redladder.co.uk
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Guardian: It's a riot – Chumbawamba does panto
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