Note: This review dates July 2001 and an earlier tour of this production.
This is tap, Jim, but not as we know it. Tap Dogs is, quite simply, one of the most exhilarating dance shows I have ever seen. Oh yes, all the steps are there alright - the single, double and triple-time step, the buck and wing and everything you have ever seen in all those Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s - but this is as far away from the The Little Darlings Academy of Dance as you can possibly imagine.
Dein Perry's choreography, as directed by Nigel Triffitt, is what can only be described as industrial tap. A group of unlikely macho misfits, sloppily dressed in sweat shirts, denims, chinos and baseball caps lumber on stage in heavy duty boots and proceed to set the theatre alight with a stunning display of terpsichory which combine the dexterity of "class acts", such as the Nicholas Brothers, with the versatility and ingenuity of Astaire and Kelly.
While Astaire danced with brooms, hat stands and Kelly, famously, with Tom the mouse, these guys use moving platforms, ladders, swing ropes and even tap upside down suspended 20 feet above the stage. They dance alone, in duos, trios and as an ensemble. They taunt the audience, have mock fights, push each other around, spit and demonstrate those despicable personal habits so familiar from every building site worker you have ever seen - all to the addictive rhythms of tap, and occasional percussion-based score from Andrew Wilkie. These dancers do everything short of falling off the (self-erected) scaffolding.
I'm hesitant to claim that this show is a re-invention of tap since the history of this dance form is still murky. However, since it's believed that British dances such as the jig and the clog coupled with the stomp from West Africa were the catalysts, and that slave ships passing through the West Indies subsequently brought it to America, it can fairly be said that this show brings tap back to its roots.
Australian choreographer Perry delighted UK audiences a few years back with Hot Shoe Shuffle, and certainly doesn't disappoint here. Director and designer Triffitt sets the show minimally on a sort of quasi construction site. There are wooden frames, a gantry, corrugated iron , and dance platforms, all of which, like Lego, appear to be capable of reconstituting themselves in the most improbable combinations, angles and gravity-defeating positions. There are also some superb lighting effects by Gavin Norris.
Performance-wise, the English cast convincingly replicate the butch characteristics and high energy of the original Australian company of dancers-cum-steel workers. Don't expect any campery. You won't (thankfully) find any here. This is artistry at its highest.
A word of warning. This show is loud so it helps if you are slightly deaf! Everything seems to be heavily miked, including the scenery, but then again noise is part of the total effect. Also, don't sit in the front row - you might get wet (or spat on)!
Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley)