Thursday 7th June 2018 at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds.
This is not the first time Bite My Thumb have produced John Godber’s Bouncers, and it shows. This is a very finely tuned production which sees a cast of four hit every mark with impressive precision – the cast know where the laughs are, and they beeline for them with complete confidence, winning every time. Set in and around a nightclub, it’s easy to guess at some of the characters and plot points we might be greeted with, but unless you know the play or the playwright already, there’s little to prepare you for this show and the lengths it goes to for laughs. Eighties born and bred, Bouncers is The Inbetweeners before The Inbetweeners; it’s Some Girls before Some Girls; it’s more than once akin to The Young Ones in characterisations and it sees little to nothing as off limits. As the eighties hits play on a loop, we meet four fellas on the door, keeping order, putting the world to rights and night-dreaming of better things for themselves…or at least some sort of action on the horizon; a leg-up or a bust-up if you please…preferably both in some combination…
Bouncers quickly whips a rope around us and drags us way down into the very depths of clubbing shenanigans and if you don’t currently delight in your experiences with potty mouthed, crotch thrusting drunk men and squealing, weeping drunk women, then you will after seeing this. As with Shakers, Bouncers flits between gaggles of men and women all supposedly existing in the same space; our actors are wild women one minute and lusty menfolk who can’t pee in a straight line the next before returning to the core roles of the bouncers outside. Knipe demonstrates a wonderful directorial flair for transitions as we see some excellent synchronised sequences and perfected physicality – every cast member pulls their weight and then some here and they are on stage for the duration. Richard Billings is the standout as Lucky Eric and others. Billings conquers female roles, accents, choreography, comedy and drama possibly more so than any other cast member. It is Billings’ Eric alone who takes centre stage in a series of brief but angst-fuelled monologues lamenting the state of society as seen through the scope of the club scene. He voices everything I personally find woeful about modern night life so I was sold on this poor fellow battling his own personal tragedy pretty quickly. His rage is as compelling as the comedy and his physicality is spot on with each shifting character – if anyone took more than their fair share of my laughter, it was Billings.
Ben Chamberlain’s Les carries unnerving undertones of being fit to combust at any moment and being oddly predatory towards others in what seems to be an implication of him being an under-sexed closeted soul. Chamberlain lands Les’ odd lines beautifully and he also gains plenty of the big laughs in his depiction of the high-pitched tipsy female. Simon Reece gives fantastic performances as both bouncer Judd and the undesirable young lass with a voice like one of Homer’s chain smoking sisters. Along with Billings, he is probably the biggest comic talent to be seen in this production. Neil Knipe’s Ralph is something of a peace keeper with a paradoxical need to prove himself, ninja style, amongst the bouncer team, but Knipe really shows himself to be quite the seasoned multi-roler in the swift shifts between women, men and…porn star.One thing is for sure here: Godber’s tongue-in-cheek vision of northern night life is not for the faint of heart. There are some questionable and downright offensive (to a modern PC mind) moments in the script and while the decision to be true to an original script and make no revisions for modern audiences will always be up for debate, the casual homophobia, racism and misogyny thesaurus used might be a bit much for some. That said, in a script which favours profanity in place of punctuation and proves itself merciless to all in a blanket fashion, such references may not even be of note to others. It’s easy to argue that this is comedy, it’s of its time and it should be taken at face value and enjoyed as nothing more than a glimpse of another era. Yet it also undeniably offers up a very recognisable modern vision too; of young (and not so young) people desperate to connect seeking that connection in the most hilarious or grotesque of ways. Perhaps it asks: does grubby club culture ever really change? Does the grim language and behaviour of the young and the randy ever change? Is all this not just a timeless rite of passage with the only differences being the sexual slang being used and the tunes played by the dodgy DJ? The cast pause and ask ‘social comment?’ at intervals, but it’s somewhere between an acknowledgement of the thin ice they’re standing on after the preceding line or an invitation to challenge…Godber’s work is pleasingly self-aware it seems.
My only real issue with using the script as is, is with the decision to include an audience member in a group chat-up scene. To have the cast crowd around and lean over a young female on the front row to chat her up is one thing, but to use the particular chat up lines of Godber at this particular point is another…and it made for uncomfortable viewing, particularly as that exchange is not a momentary one. For me, it was funny while it was upstage and removed; less so when an unassuming member of the public is publicly accosted with ‘nice legs love, what time do they open?’ among others – we know the line, of course we do, but I’m not sure it’s well-considered enough to direct it at an audience member. Had one of the cast played the female, I would have hooted with laughter, I’m sure – the bawdy lines are old as time, but the discomfort over-rode the funny at this point…at the very least they could have removed the predatory nature of it all by including a male audience member for whom such lines would be all the funnier for not logically fitting the make and model so unabashedly mentioned by Godber.On the flip side, there are some thoroughly hilarious moments here – my favourite being the slow motion sequences and the peeing in unison but those are swiftly followed by the generous number of choreographed mime numbers, the punks, the porno and any scene including Reece’s fantastical undateable man eater. The humour is smutty and outlandish but not without wit and intelligence which toys with the culture crafted by choice shock tactic language. I laughed a lot. You’d be hard pressed to find a missed cue or a flubbed line, despite the pace, and those are just a few things securing the loud success of this production. Having seen Bite My Thumb’s Productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shakers previously, I felt pretty certain that this show would be just as entertaining, but I didn’t anticipate the top notch result of the strength of Godber’s writing in combination with such confident, sharp handling of it. The highlights are many and the laughter is plentiful – if you get a chance to catch this, do!
Bouncers has one final date to play on its current tour (June 22nd 2018) and you can find information here. It is currently listed as sold out, so try the Box Office and cross your fingers that Lady Luck smiles at you and not another lucky punter!
Lighting and sound: Alistair Fox
Photography: Paul Cresswell