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Big Society! (Leeds)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Why should a theatre piece which produces such a celebratory response from its audience leave me with a nagging sense of disappointment? Maybe it’s because of my uncertainty about what writer Boff Whalley, Red Ladder and Chumbawamba are trying to achieve with Big Society!.

Big Society! satirises the injustices of Cameron/Clegg Britain via a backstage/onstage story of music hall in 1910. Some of the songs specifically relate to the 21st century, but the narrative, such as it is, concerns music hall performers: George Lightfeather, timidly pursuing Beatrice while Eve recruits for the suffragettes and Magic Barry tries to get a trick that works. The Master of Ceremonies is a rather over-written representative of the upper classes, frantically attempting to maintain “standards”.

My problem is that, as agit-prop, Big Society! promises more than it delivers. There are some songs that strike home, such as “The Old School Tie” (a terrific performance by Phill Jupitus), and the Master of Ceremonies’ trenchant “Oil Song” kickstarts a powerful first half-hour after the interval, though even here Dave and Nick’s ventriloquist act confines itself to variations on one joke (a good one). It all seems a bit safe, but in fairness Whalley promises to mix politics with “fun, entertainment and immediacy”, so who am I complain? It’s fun all right, but surely the later stages need not be so soft-centred?

Positives are very easy to find. It’s hard to imagine a much more engaging cast, including the lady euphonium player (Jude Abbott) who, with her knitting, scores a personal triumph in a non-speaking role. Phill Jupitus is outstanding as George, committed and irresistibly comic, hammering out the political message of his songs with élan and creating a convincing character out of comparatively limited material. Lisa Howard (Eve) and Kyla Goodey (Beatrice) are also excellent, Howard leading the choruses with typical music hall gusto. Dean Nolan has too many indigestible rhyming couplets to negotiate as the Master of Ceremonies, but emerges as oddly sympathetic – too sympathetic? Band members playing smaller parts, such as Harry Hamer as Magic Barry, do so with an appealing air of being surprised to be there!

Occasionally the pace flags, but Rod Dixon’s direction is thoroughly audience-friendly, aided by Ali Allen’s stylish period designs. The music is resonant and hearty, with Boff Whalley’s banjo running the whole gamut from wistful to jaunty. A clearly supportive first-night audience was in a mood to celebrate and I suppose that’s fair enough. If there’s nothing to celebrate in the inequalities of society, we can always raise a cheer for the reopening of the splendidly refurbished City Varieties!

For more information visit www.cityvarieties.co.uk


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