Guest reviewer: Ellen Casey
Shit-faced Showtime is something of an institution, having performed slightly sodden classic musicals for the last 9 years – there’s something to be said for a winning formula. This is how it works: the chosen musical, in this case Oliver!, is choreographed and performed with levity in mind, and then every night one of the actors is fed an assortment of alcohol and let loose on stage.
What follows is usually stumbling, lightly improvised – the other actors react cat-like to whatever inanity their drunk compatriot comes out with – fun, overseen by a ringmaster-like compere who supervises the anarchy, storming on stage to administer alcohol whenever she feels that the actor’s blood alcohol level has dropped below acceptable levels. There are two other fail-safes distributed amongst the audience – a toy xylophone and trumpet, for audience members to tinkle or toot if they want to see a drunk actor get drunker. It’s a fun audience participation device, though it backfires slightly if said audience members are a little too shy to actually, well, participate; in a production that relies on being too drunk to function, the danger of sobriety is all too real.
When I saw it Hal Hillman, who played Bill (as well as various supporting characters and back up dancers), was the chosen lush. It’s hard to evaluate someone’s drunkenness but Hillman had all the pre-requisites to ensure a great shit-faced show; he was a good-natured drunk, he didn’t mess up any incredibly important lines, and there was enough veering off the script to draw big laughs. The only thing that strikes me when I watch Shit-faced shows – it’s not my first – is that sometimes the off-kilter fun can feel a little forced. You pay to see a show at least lightly sabotaged – at its best it kind of feels like your drunk uncle attempting to play charades at Christmas – so no matter what, the actors almost have a responsibility to throw things off. A little exaggeration is no bad thing (drink responsibly, kids), but it can take away from the anarchistic spirit of the thing.
Having a supporting character be the chosen inebriate can also have its drawbacks; there’s something slightly unsatisfying about not seeing Fagin or Oliver teetering about the stage. There’s the danger of feeling slightly cheated by what day you choose to come on – as the drunk actor alternates, it’s really luck of the draw – and again, as the chosen actor has to have some time off stage, a lot of the time the Showtime doesn’t feel especially Shit-faced. Luckily the play itself is funny on its own (helped by strong sober performances from the rest of the cast), but it is the weakest part of the whole concept.
My verdict? Raucous, ridiculous fun, but with conspicuous gaps in the hilarity.
Shit-faced Showtime: Oliver With a Twist runs at Leicester Square Theatre until 12 April 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.