There was a time, in England in the 1960s, when 1920s Chicago jazz was very popular. The Temperance Seven had number one hits, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were a beautiful and eccentric act whose Neil Innes later worked with Monty Python. Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band and the Pasadena Roof Orchestra also had success in the 60s and 70s. They were all first class musicians and their acts featured comedy and music in equal measure – just like the Dutch band Släpstick whose new show The Roaring Twenties has just premiered.
The difference is that Släpstick’s show is big – big stage, big sets, big production numbers and big ideas. The five members of the band – Jon Bittman, Rogier Bosman, Jaap Rovers, Willem van Baarsen and Sanne van Delft – all cite the likes of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers as influences and inspiration, but there is much more than that. The show is a bit like that children’s book series Where’s Wally – there are so many influences, hat-tippings, throw-aways and asides that one is on a constant look out for them. Apart from Chaplin et al I was reminded of the Dada Cabaret Voltaire and the German pre-war comedian Karl Valentin.
Although this was essentially a comedy extravaganza, music was the cement that bound it together. All five members of the band were classically trained and their versatility was breathtaking – literally for them, I imagine. Their performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, scored for a full orchestra and played by just five men, was a tribute as much to their athleticism and agility as to their musical prowess. Jon Bittman’s beautiful rendition of Sidney Bechet’s Petite Fleur was never upstaged by the comedy routine that accompanied it. Of the big production numbers, He’s in the Jailhouse Now, based on Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 song, was one of my favourites. It involved a convict on the run culminating in a ventriloquist act with busts of Beethoven and Schubert, the latter only willing to yodel, much to the annoyance of the former.
The show’s finale was a spectacular sequence with all five in a car travelling across the United States against a projected backdrop of rural and urban America and a role of honour of their musical and comedy heroes.
The Roaring Twenties is Släpstick’s fifth show and, since their inception in 2003, they have toured the world, won numerous awards and worked with, among others, Scapino Ballet, Brigitte Kaandorp, the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague, and Ellen ten Damme. Part jazz, part cabaret, part circus but always wholly amazing, this was one of the best nights I have spent in a theatre in a long time – notwithstanding the fact that theatres have been largely closed for the past two years.
Släpstick’s The Roaring Twenties is an anarchic kaleidoscope of comedy and musical thrills. The pace, over nearly two hours without an interval, was unrelenting and non-stoppable – but who wanted it to stop?
I had never heard of Släpstick until now, my loss, but I shall be an avid fan and follower in the future and I would recommend that you are too. Stupendous. Michael Hasted at Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague on 2nd March 2022
THE ROARING TWENTIES by Släpstick will tour until June 2022. Click here for dates and venues