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Fun at the Beach Romp-Bomp-a-Lomp!! (Southwark Playhouse)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th June 2024)

Blending eras, this show’s baseline parodies Americana of the 1950 and 60s. Think “Grease” and every “beach movie” they made. Clean-cut kids out for a good time, nobody quite knowing how to find love but finding it anyhow.

Throw in every horror movie cliché from back then, and mix in a little “Hunger Games” / “Squid Games” - the dramatic spine is “who will survive the lethal tasks competition?”

To top it off, almost every song is a parody of a famous popular number of the era, tunes and lyrics changed just enough to avoid charges of plagiarism and paying out royalties, as well as providing many laughs and occasional filthy misdirection.

It looks great. Emily Bestow spells out the title in a blaze of lights across the top of a proscenium arch, comes up with some ingenious visual humour (you will love the shark, fish and seagulls); plus outfitting the gang in Scooby-Doo gear, instantly recognisable wear for the times.

Sounds good too. A four-piece band under Brandon Lambert gleefully spoof the music in that age, Byron Ladd-Carr ensuring we don’t miss a note with perfect sound.

Mark Bell and Francesca Jaynes direct and choreograph on the largest scale they can. Bell is in familiar territory from his Mischief Theatre Company days, borrowing a few ideas along the way – the ominous almost anthropomorphic speakers are new, though, and a hoot. 

Jaynes has obviously made a lengthy study of moves from the period, so hand-jives and those dances attached to the original songs parodied are authentic - with a little tongue-in-cheek updating.

The cast are also classic “teens, but not really teens” - that intentionally funny visual effect of acting far younger than they are. Disconcerting at first, we soon begin to actually care for them all, even if the show never explains why they are trapped in the contest and cannot just walk away.

Lovers Chickie (Katie Oxman) and Dickie (Damien James) cluck at each other and do the heavyweight physical comedy. Oxman is gifted with the extrovert ability to pull the company together, James has the timing to land every line.

Mary Joe (Ellie Clayton) and Joe (Tom Babbage) get the best psycho-drama, Babbage also getting the most memorable exit and best comedy scene in the whole thing. Clayton nabs the most interesting, broadest role, and she clearly enjoys her final moments.

In “Danny and Sandy” territory, Chastity (Janice Landry) and Dude (Jake Whittle) are exactly what we expect. Landry clearly relishes her big number; Whittle is brighter than the average Travolta, which makes for a deeper fun-to-watch character.

There is amusing support too from ensemble members Bradley Adams (exit, pursued by shark, hilariously) and Dixie Newman as that always-smiley person who can do anything. Author Dan Landry's sinister turn as the unseen sadistic announcer never tires either.

What is really interesting is realising that this is how it must have felt being at the earliest performances of “The Rocky Horror Show” in the tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs back in 1973. This is a cult hit in the same vein, requiring only a few changes to match its illustrious ancestor.

The show currently lacks a major “hook” number on the level of “The Time Warp.” A few of the songs are exceptionally clever, “What A Beautiful Beach,” “The Ocean Motion,” “Popsicle,” “Mature Women Don’t Whine” and “It’s In His Peck,” but none quite land an unexpected knockout toe-tapping punch, possibly because parody restricts originality. Maybe an original “uber song” to tie them all together could help.

It also really needs to figure out how to encourage full audience participation. So much of it demands an unofficial / official list of catcalls for fans to make, a moment for them to dance and become truly involved. Find these, excising some of the repeating humour to make way for it, and the show will soar.

As it stands, this is a real chance to say “I was there first time,” right at the birth of something which could one day become a staple of the cleanest-living high school musical theatre departments... not.

4 stars.

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