Get ‘Em Off is more pastiche-boom! than pastiche, with its amiable synthesis of La Cage Aux Folles, The Full Monty and Frozen, but it is laugh-out loud funny, touching, sexy and has the potential to be inspirational. Directed with considerable flair by Robert McWhir, and performed by a talented, attractive cast, this is a new musical worth attention and audiences. With refinement, orchestral arrangements, bigger financial backing and an augmented cast, it could kick Kinky Boots off the West End.
One of the most reliable features of productions at Above The Stag is set design. The space is fairly small, but the difficulties that poses bring out great innovation in designers. For Get ‘Em Off, now playing there, the resourceful David Shields creates a space that is so seedy and faded glamour, with red glitter slashed across the walls in much the same way Shirley Carter uses eye-makeup on Eastenders, that you swear you can smell the urine and stale beer as you take your seat.
Most of the action takes place in a gay bar in Croydon, premises that have not had much care lavished on them since owner Quinney split up with his long time partner and lost his vibe for happiness. But there are other locations too: a teacher’s room in a local college; the smart apartment of an affluent man and his not-so-affluent partner of seven years. Shields summons up both spaces admirably with the use of hidden painted backdrops which are revealed by jagged move-able (hinged) flats.
The book, by John Bradfield and Martin Hooper, involves many scene changes and Shield’s set facilitates McWhir’s intention that the pace not lag. An interesting convention is used after each scene: lighting designer Sam House provides a cone of light in which characters can have momentary silent communion with the audience, summing up a mood or anticipating/regretting what is to come. The overall result of design and costumes is both tacky and terrific, more appropriate than might be expected in such a small venue.
Music and lyrics are provided by Bradfield, who has regularly collaborated with Hooper on a series of successful adult pantomimes over the years. They clearly understand each other well, because the music and lyrics work seamlessly together. Bradfield has a deal of musical fun here, the high point of which is a quite hilarious parody of Gypsy’s Gotta Get A Gimmick – Gotta Get Your Dick Out. There are references of the melody kind to other musicals too, notably Sunset Boulevard, and one song, Crazy, is a truly inspired send-up of the Evita Magaldi character. There is much of musical interest in the score as well as a lot of poppy, freshly tuneful melodies – with a full band and proper orchestrations there is a lot here that could soar.
As it is, the music is gently engaging, the odd ballad is affecting and rich in feeling and the silly, sexy production numbers are cracking fun. There are also pure musical comedy moments – the delightful “love” song, Netflix or Chill, the raucous Fuck ‘Em Sir and the gently accepting and affectionate Every Group Needs A Ringo; each is full of character and progresses the narrative in a Rodgers and Hammerstein way.
The ever reliable, ever jubilant Carole Todd provides funny and frisky choreography throughout. The musical staging is sensible and interesting, and there are the occasional moments when back-up singer/dancers appear from (almost) nowhere to provide a camp sensibility which is undeniably humorous. The final full-cast striptease number is exactly as it should be – cheeky, suggestive and daft – and House’s lighting ensures that the full-frontal nudity which caps it off is not entirely obscured in the Full Monty ending one expects.
Surprises abound – and surprising choreography is always welcome.
Iain Vince-Gatt ensures that the musical accompaniment, though basic, is brisk and sensitive to the vocals. The balance is generally very good although there were some microphone issues which made hearing the lyrics occasionally difficult. Happily, most of the cast were audible without amplification so it was not too big a problem.
The story seems overly simplistic, but actually deals with interesting issues. Quinny’s gay bar is losing patronage in the age of social media hook-up apps. Entrepreneurial barman, Rhys, suggests event nights might bring in the punters. An amateur strip night comes into being. There are a few “regulars” at the bar, some more regular than others. Flamboyant super-Twink Mitch; quite musically inclined Ricky; shy immigrant Milosh who has left his homeland because he could not live life as a gay man there; and lonely teacher Brian, who has just come out of a 6 year relationship. Add to the mix, Quinney, who owns the bar, and Luke, the Adonis electrician and father-to-be, brought in to sort out some fuses but who causes flashes, surges and the occasional need for a pacemaker for clientele, and you have the central cast.
Brian’s story involves the very real issue of “body shaming” and deals with it in a funny but gentle and affecting way. Ricky is in a long-term relationship with Stephen, but clearly is not enjoying it; this story-line brings up the often unexplored issue of domestic bullying/abuse in gay relationships, again in a gentle and sensitive way. Importantly, although Stephen is clearly betrayed by Ricky, and gets sympathy for that, the narrative makes clear his own appalling and condescending subjugation of Ricky. Mitch turns out to be the most accepting and accommodating of all, wiser than his sparkly tops and capital G gay outfits suggest. Appearances aren’t everything. Milosh’s story accurately reflects the pain and isolation felt by those whose sexual orientation is not accepted in their own communities and homes.
In fact, Get ‘EM Off has enough moral messages it could be a Disney movie. Except, perhaps, for the obscenities and explicit sex talk. But it is those elements which, frankly, keep the characters and story rooted in the real world. Counter-intuitively, they are also the elements which make this feel, occasionally, like a send-up of musicals rather than a musical in its own right. It just a question of tone – mostly it is finely judged, occasionally it slips into territory which is banal.
Partly, this problem is encapsulated with the dialogue given to Quinny, played in suitable Dick Emery style by Dereck Walker. His patter on stage in the bar is not barbed enough, not mean enough, not funny enough; but some of his off-stage dialogue is precisely right for onstage patter. Walker makes a fair job of what he is given, but with more polished material, Quinny could be a serious tragic-comic figure. As it is, Walker makes the character work, but it is occasionally hard going. The authors should spend more time refining this key part.
Walker is not helped by the way some of the other roles are written. The extremely talented David Michael Hands plays seven roles, each exquisitely. He makes a lot out of material similar to that given to Walker and the invigorating approach he brings to each character is delightful. He is sexy and louche as Rhys the barman; divinely cod as the terrible cabaret artiste Matteo; makes the manipulating Stephen (who could have been one of the characters from Mike Bartlett’s Cock) real and awful but comprehensible; is slimy and calculating as Baz, Quinney’s ex, who is determined to destroy him; makes Brian’s college principal, Duncan, an unctuous loathsome bigot; is terrifically funny as an Uber driver saddled with a gaggle of gays but accepting of them; and finishes in a ripping turn as a beautician.
Hands is exceptional. Each character is clearly delineated; once or twice it was uncertain that it was Hands playing the part, so complete were his transformations. He sings very well and gave good striptease in the final number. A very talented performer, he is definitely one to watch.
Joe Golding is enjoying himself enormously as the extravagant Tinkerbell that is Mitch and his enjoyment becomes contagious. He might be at college, but he is living life in the playground. Funny, bitchy, surprisingly kind, Golding makes Mitch a twink for all seasons: sometimes you want to hug him, sometimes you want to slap him, sometimes you want to silence him, sometimes you want to party with him – but he is always intriguing.
Michael Lynson is lovely as the awkward Milosh, desperate for friends and love. Netflix and Chill, his romantic expression of hope for a future with Ashley Daniel’s sweet Ricky was one of the night’s real highlights. Lynson handled the accent well and was impressive showing the advances Milosh made in his friendships across the course of the narrative.
Daniel was delightful, if a bit tentative now and then, as the confused Ricky. He imbued his scenes with Lynson’s Milosh with the very warmth that was absent, tellingly so, from his scenes with Hands’ Stephen.
The hardest role, by far, here is that of Brian, the recently “divorced” college teacher, who has no self-confidence and whose body is not as he imagines others would want it to be. Stuart Harris is in good form. The thought of stripping in a contest at first terrifies him but then releases him from the constricts he has placed upon himself. He makes an unlikely bond with his student Mitch and a much more likely, albeit embryonic, one with Quinny, all the while discovering that people are actually interested in him, not just what he looks like.
Tom Bowen spends most of the time appropriately strutting and peacocking as the ludicrously attractive Luke, who teaches the gang how to strip properly – Luke was a former professional stripper. He betrays his newfound friends, but realises his error in time to make amends. He does nice work in demonstrating how a good-looking straight man can be easy friends with a group of disparate gay men and he convinced as someone for whom nudity was no big deal. There is a final shock for the character in the play’s last stages and it comes as a welcome one, a indication of how endearing this model outsider has made himself to the audience.
McWhir is to be congratulated, in particular, about the camaraderie developed with the cast. They all sing and dance well together, no-one tries to “steal” the show, everyone works together and supports each other. A real sense of radiant harmony, not just in vocal sense, crosses the footlights; and each cast member has an A level in cheekiness and geniality. Tremendous teamwork.
Get ‘Em Off is a fine new musical and this production demonstrates its value and makes a case for further work-shopping: it’s slightly too long and, on reflection, the entire storyline regarding Duncan and Brian could probably be excised, or at least considerably trimmed. But with a chorus, an band and different arrangements and higher production values that investors could provide, this could be a real success story.
As it stands, Get ‘Em Off is a great night out, very funny and overflowing with heart. It’s another real success for McWhir. It is also a love song to acceptance and community.
Very timely. Very worthwhile seeing.