"Is it sh*t theatre-making or is it inspired? You decide!": that tongue-in-cheek line, gleefully bellowed by an actor wearing a hollowed-out TV set on his head having just been playing a news reporter, is probably as good a summation of this utterly bonkers, intermittently hilarious musical as anything I can write about it. I would probably err in the direction of it being inspired though.
Police Cops themselves (Zachary Hunt, Tom Roe, Nathan Parkinson) have become award-winning darlings of the comedy and fringe theatre circuit with their signature brand of athletic improvisation, keen-eyed parody and breathtaking invention, and, on the basis of this piece of inspired lunacy, it's not hard to see why.
For their first musical, they send up the American TV cop shows of the 1970s and 1980s, where men were men, women lacked agency and nobody batted an eyelid at some fairly horrible attitudes to anyone who wasn't white (but especially Hispanic people), and where the macho posturing and strong jawlines of the fictional police heroes belied the fact that most of them were seedy as hell. Probably the only way to contemplate such reactionary fare these days is through a veil of satire, and the musical treatment (cue much beatific staring into the middle distance while belting out the money notes) further ups the hysteria ante.
Ian Coulter's tunes are catchy and there are some familiar interpolations ("Crockett's Theme" from the Miami Vice soundtrack crops up at one point, as do suitably demented versions of The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and The Eagles' "Hotel California"), but it's mainly the sight gags (of which there are many, and some of them are astonishing in their lo-tech ingenuity), the multiple running jokes, and the bravura performances that audiences will remember.
Hunt is rookie cop Jimmy Johnson, destined for a life in the Force after making a death bed (well, death pavement actually) promise to his little sister after she was mown down in a drive-by shooting. Hunt brilliantly maintains an air of baffled seriousness even when the plot, such as it is, goes into ever more outlandish territory, that makes it far funnier than playing it for laughs. That's also true of Tom Roe, gruffly delightful as his gravel-voiced sidekick, a disgraced police officer with a guilty secret and a look of Heath Ledger. Nathan Parkinson is hilarious in a variety of roles, from a dodgy teacher (the show opens with a fabulously ghastly school play, solely to set the Jimmy and sister storyline up) to an arch villain with a penchant for dressing up like a cat.
For this show, the Police Cops are augmented by a pair of sensational women, who also take on multiple roles. Miztli Rose scores massive laughs, and even finds a certain deadpan truth, as two young girls who look up to Jimmy as a highly improbable role model, and as Crazy Ruth, an eccentric motor-mouthed Australian barkeep with bizarre erotic designs on her terrified-looking cleaner. Andrea Nodroum strikes the perfect balance between knowing and overwrought as a Mexican former police chief-turned-orphanage proprietress with an unhealthy obsession with mops.
If this all sounds a bit scattershot, well, it is, and the overriding silliness may prove too much for some. Like the universally lauded Operation Mincemeat, which it sometimes resembles and which also started out at the New Diorama, Police Cops The Musical is a tad overlong. There is so much comedy gold in the first half that the (still raucously entertaining) second act feels a little anticlimactic. I'd be inclined to cut the interval and about half an hour of the material, and do it as one rollicking act.
The singing sometimes concedes accuracy to enthusiasm, and such a prop heavy show (the backstage areas must be chockablock) has huge potential for things to go wrong, several of which did on press night. Part of the joy of Matt Harrison's adrenalised, larger-than-life production though is watching this engaging quintet of performers work around the mishaps. It probably wouldn't be half as much fun if it ran smoothly.
Seldom has a show compounded its clichés so effectively: from the dated tropes of late 20th century television to the cheesily emotional excesses of musical theatre, it's all observed with devastating accuracy, and served back up with sparkle, invention, energy and some serious belly laughs. A recently deceased corpse breaks into backing vocals, doll babies are fired across the stage, giant sheets of card are waved around to create a rock video ‘wind' effect, the hero repeatedly bursts out of his shirt for no good reason beyond being buff, and a heavenly angel plays a tune on a penny whistle, albeit very very badly… as I said, this is a bonkers evening. There's even a Mexican Christmas scene for the festive season. On the whole, I'd definitely go with "inspired".