“It’s a rare treat to find musical comedies on the fringe circuit that are as technically good as they are funny”
Nothing ever happens in High Wycombe. Bryony Buckle spends her days living alone with her cat Elton, working a monotonous office job with her friend Poppy, and crushing on her colleague Orson. But one day, the combination of a hormone injection from her doctor, and being struck by lightning on her way home, results in Bryony waking up with superpowers! She decides to use them for good: Wherever men are arseholes, Vulvarine is there to stop them. But it isn’t long before she’s challenged by an evil scientist: The Mansplainer. Can Vulvarine and her friends defeat him?
Fat Rascal Theatre continue to set the bar for off-West End musicals. I was lucky enough to catch their Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody back in November at The King’s Head, and arrived at VAULT Festival last night with impossibly high expectations. Their Beauty and the Beast was the most fun I’d had at a show in ages; it was a question whether they’d be able to match their own standard. But without doubt, Fat Rascal have done it again. Vulvarine is a triumph of musical theatre.
A powerhouse of a show, Vulvarine is an astoundingly clever and absolutely hilarious musical parody of the superhero genre. It’s also feminism at its silliest and most entertaining. West-End voices belt out smart, witty lyrics (Robyn Grant, Daniel Elliot) to fun, highly accomplished music (James Ringer-Beck). The performers are superb. Their comedy is faultless, their parody expert.
Self-aware humour is one of Fat Rascal’s own superpowers. With a somewhat lower budget than the typical Marvel film, they create a brilliantly funny aesthetic with cheap wigs, comically fast costume changes, flimsy props, and total mockery of ‘effects’ (a handheld vacuum in reverse is the wind as Vulvarine ‘flies through the air’). The show is laugh-out-loud from start to finish. The audience really almost never stops laughing. There ought to be a warning for anyone prone to hysterical fits; some people lost it completely.
Allie Munro is equally lovable and fierce as Bryony/Vulvarine. Jamie Mawson is delightful as the ‘pretty’ love interest, Orson (a nice gender swap from typical Marvel plotlines). Steffan Rizzi is great as Sonya, and sings a particularly powerful solo – “Boys Will Be Boys” – which is done with surprising heart and skill. Robyn Grant and Katie Wells slay their multi-rolling performances. All of the voices in this show belong on much larger stages. It’s a rare treat to find musical comedies on the fringe circuit that are as technically good as they are funny.
Fat Rascal Theatre are at the top of their game. An undeniable hit, Vulvarine is the latest addition to their list of victories. The show is shamelessly silly fun, created by powerfully talented people. You’ll be hard-pressed to spend a more enjoyable hour and fifteen minutes in a theatre.
“From an inclusivity perspective, the use of a puppet instead of an actor is the wrong choice. From an artistic perspective, it is also the wrong choice”
Martin (Simon Lipkin) and Tamora (Charlie Brooks) are the parents of an eleven-year-old boy called Laurence. Laurence is autistic and requires constant care and supervision, something that is lovingly provided by his carer Gary (Michael Fox). Tomorrow, Laurence is leaving his family and going to a school that can give him the level of care he needs and deserves. But is it the right decision? And who made the call that forced his parents into this position?
If you read the above paragraph again, you might notice that a detail is missing. What is the name of the actor playing Laurence? But Laurence is not played by a living, breathing actor; instead, he is represented by a ginger-haired, grey-faced puppet (operated by Hugh Purves). This decision has been at the heart of a backlash against All in a Row, with some campaigners calling it ableist and dehumanising.
From an inclusivity perspective, the use of a puppet instead of an actor is the wrong choice. From an artistic perspective, it is also the wrong choice. It places an unnecessary barrier between Laurence and the audience, leaving us unable to connect with him. Even during the most heart-breaking scenes, Purves’ puppetry cannot convey the same emotion that an actor could: in fact, Laurence often disappears in the midst of his parents’ personal drama.
Unfortunately, this makes the rest of the show difficult to watch; even the strong moments were marred by the general sense of discomfort. And I do want to emphasise that there were good aspects. Lipkin and Brooks are utterly convincing as the warring parents whose love for their son is burdened by their frustration. The bond that Fox’s kind and earnest Gary forges with Laurence is genuinely sweet; it is easy to imagine how much he enriches Laurence’s life. PJ McEvoy’s set design is evocative, blending domesticity with more stylised aspects, such as the arch of crossed lines that extends across the back of the stage.
Alex Oates knows how to write a moving scene, but unfortunately most of them are weighed down by things that tell us more about the parents than Laurence himself. The relentless humour sometimes works – it is understandable that Martin and Tamora would like to look at the situation in a lighter way – but often deflates scenes that have a strong emotional charge. This feels like yet another barrier between us and the heart of the story. It adds to the feeling that this was a great concept for a play that should have been executed better.
I don’t believe that anyone had bad intentions with All in a Row, I just believe that a poor choice was made with regards to representation, which affected the way I experienced this production. At the end of the day, if an autistic character cannot be the most visible and memorable character in a play about autism, then the author’s portrayal was ineffective. Hopefully, this will open up a conversation in which both sides will listen and participate.