10 October 2019.
Waterside Theatre, Manchester.
Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah Blah’s alternative title is Much Ado About Nothing, and The Arden’s Theatre and Performance students (collaborating here with Figs in Wigs) begin with some choice words from Shakespeare. But very quickly, “sigh no more ladies” and “hey nonny nonny” gives way to “can I have a consonant please?”.
Everyone is bizarrely dressed in orange overalls with matching bright shiny nylon wigs and big electric-blue stuck-on eyebrows. Up pops the Countdown clock, and off we go with an elaborately choreographed rearrangement of letters that reveal a cavalcade of word pairings from POT NOODLE through DONUT LINO to SOLID CUNT. And finally POINTLESS.
The show may reference Shakespeare’s work but it doesn’t need spelling out that THIS IS NOT A PLAY. Establishing their performance credentials early on, the company tell us that they’ll each be playing another member of the cast. So Keisha will be playing Elise, Elise will be playing Katie, Katie will be playing Chloe, and so on. Just to add to any confusion, they’ll also be playing each other playing other characters, so here’s Chloe “playing Leanne playing the vicar’s mother”. Layers upon layers.
Before we leave Countdown, it might be worth a visit to Dictionary Corner.
Definition of blah please?
A word used to substitute for actual words in contexts where they are felt to be too tedious or lengthy to give in full.
Blah Blah Blah… isn’t some throwaway title. It’s a comment on their named source material, a clue to their approach. And so, Shakespeare’s plot is soon dispensed with, reeled off in a matter of minutes, chewed down to a few chatty digestible chunks.
Spoiler alert… there’s “a lot of tension”, “everything’s not what it seems”, “Hero has to prove to everyone she’s not a slut” and finally “(Claudio) goes to take off his new bride’s veil and ‘BOOM’, it’s Hero!”.
With all that out of the way, where does the performance go? Well, it heads off in several popular-culture-referencing directions, including a cheap and cheerful video pastiche of the opening titles of Kenneth Branagh’s screen adaptation of Much Ado, but it can’t resist returning to the Bard’s original “film slash play” for occasional inspiration.
Like its less supple Shakespearian sibling, it’s a show that’s partial to a musical interlude, especially when there’s a chance for some cheeky wordplay. So come hither for a mix up over mandolins and mandarins, and an attempt to bang out a tune on a keyboard using feet which is inevitably a “step toe far”. There’s even a masked ball, although in this case everyone’s identities are concealed beneath some disconcerting horses’ heads and, to the audience’s delight, they bump and grind their way through Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road.
Of course it’s gloriously absurd, there’s even an appearance from a pantomime horse, but it’s also clever and thoughtful stuff masquerading as entertaining silliness.
The company even make merry with the untapped potential of Much Ado About Nothing‘s Messina – a busy social whirl of a city, a tight community where Shakespeare’s characters regularly reference relatives and acquaintances, people who are briefly mentioned and never seen. Blah Blah Blah… infiltrates that world of possibilities, subversively creating detailed backstories (and names) for a new collection of characters in attendance at Hero and Claudio’s wedding. Make way for the vicar’s mother, the old woman who hates weddings, the drunken gatecrasher, and Keith who has forgotten to take his antihistamine, and is nervous about an allergic reaction to the bride’s dog Scooby “who might be the ring bearer”. The wedding itself is a sideshow compared to this simmering cluster of resentments, secrets and fears.
It’s not all about Shakespeare though, far from it. There’s other stuff going on. Once the nuptials are out of the way, and after the curtain would have come down on the knees-up in Messina, there’s a whole new ‘sub-plot’ introduced. A wedding and three funerals. Well, three deaths. The demise of a trio of butterflies in the rehearsal room is revealed with deadpan seriousness, and three tiny coffins with teensy-weensy floral tributes are carried on stage. One by one, overblown eulogies are emotionally delivered. Any laughter from the audience is met with disapproving stares from the cast. It’s a tragedy, but not a Shakespearean one – there’s no blank verse here, these theatre-makers prefer their spoken tributes to rhyme…
Figs in Wigs’ trademark dance routines are interspersed throughout the show, they exude a playful energy that keeps everything very much afloat. Much Ado About Nothing may be the only Shakespearean play that ends with a dance but Blah Blah Blah… goes one better and squeezes in a double dose of dancing, complete with costume change, for its finale. The concluding choreographed sequence to 1960s Cambodian garage rock is especially eye-catching. Dressed for a crime scene in protective blue overalls, with matching hair nets and shoe covers, the company solemnly shuffle in synchronised formation to the music, as if celebrating the forensic dissection of their stuffy source material.
Not all of the cast look comfortable with the demanding choreography but that doesn’t detract from the overall impression. However, even though the show specifically includes a debate on the best way to finish, the actual ending is messy, with the addition of some filmed credits followed by a blast of loud music serving only to confuse the audience. Things drift to a conclusion rather than ending with the ‘big bang’ the performers deserve.
Overall, it’s a production that makes full use of the black box space, confidently spreading itself out and aiming for a touch of spectacle. Design-wise, with its vivid dayglo-drenched colour scheme and slick use of ultraviolet lighting, the show radiates a super-cool warmth. More often than not, the cast are identically clad, which gifts the quirky costumes even more of an impact as they multiply across the stage. Music too is used effectively to add depth and interest throughout.
Whatever its title suggests, this is definitely not much ado about nothing, there’s more to Blah Blah Blah… than meets the eye. Beneath its assured off-the-wall charm and crowd-pleasing set-pieces, this is a smart, inspired and multi-layered piece of work.