The concept behind Bullshit London‘s newest tour is excellent, with its observations about the ridiculousness of London landing brilliantly. With more attention paid to the ‘theatre’ of the piece, with specific emphasis placed on the host’s characterisation, this alternative walking tour has the potential to be a corker.
A walking tour designed very much for Londoners, Bullshit London‘s concept is excellent. Parodying the gullibility that we love to associate with visitors of the capital, and channeling a distinctively homegrown type of humour (unadulterated silliness, à la Monty Python), there’s something lovely about seeing your own city in a brand new (unconventional) light and being part of the small group who knows what’s going on.
Much to the delight of the initiated (around 15 of us on the afternoon I saw it), pedestrians who eavesdrop on the commentary look baffled – blissfully unaware that 98% of what the guy in the red-sequinned jacket is saying is bollocks. Watching those instances play out is painfully funny in itself, and that’s before you even start paying attention to the gags.
The City Tour (subtitled ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’), as I understand it, is a recent addition to Bullshit London‘s portfolio. Focusing on the fascinating streets surrounding Moorgate, the Barbican and the Bank of England, the 1hr15min route combines ample viewing spots of the Brutalist architecture that the area is famous for with stainless-steel monstrosity that (you get the impression) are normally only visited by the sober-suited.
There’s something slightly other-worldly about treading these streets on a Sunday afternoon; the tranquility makes the experience feel instantly quite theatrical (the good kind). When you’re used to these streets on hectic weeknights, sprawling with taxis and bankers working late, it feels suddenly like you’re walking around an enormous, elaborate replica that Reuben’s cobbled together in his garage. His choice of time and day is smart, de-stabilising you slightly to an area you thought you knew – and ensuring you look at things another way. Anyway, on to the gags. After all, that’s why everyone’s there.
Reuben’s jokes are at their funniest when they (ironically) don’t rely on too much ‘bullshit’, because what he’s pointing out is funny enough already. He has an astute knack for identifying and drawing attention to examples of ridiculousness in ‘actual real London’ – and it’s these instances, where ‘bullshit’ merely makes his observations funnier than they already are, that form some of the funniest stops of the tour. Without ruining anything, there’s some excellent observations of the extent of surveillance on our streets, or the labelling of the floors in skyscrapers, for example. I’d go as far as saying one of the most interesting outtakes of the tour is actually ‘London is fucking funny in itself, we just don’t take the time to look’. This isn’t by any means a criticism to Reuben, it’s a credit to the experience.
The other aspect of Bullshit London that really works, and one I wasn’t necessarily expecting, is an unashamedly palpable anti-capitalist agenda that runs throughout the piece and underpins most of the gags. Reuben’s commentary functions as a light-hearted protest against the influence of the surrounding private enterprises and whilst his analogies aren’t particularly revelatory, it doesn’t matter. The decision to give this agenda ample stage time gives the piece a real focus, and it’s all the stronger for doing so.
Before I write about what didn’t quite work for me, I feel it’s worth me emphasising here that I am reviewing the piece in the only way I know how: as a piece of theatre. Bullshit London may well not classify the experience to be pure theatre (which is totally fair), but I have to look at it through that lens or it’s difficult for me to say much at all. And I do personally believe the piece could be strengthened by thinking about it like a real piece of performance, more so than Reuben perhaps currently does.
My first reservation is probably the most significant; I’m just not convinced that the host’s existing characterisation entirely fits the format or elicits the extent of laughter that the jokes could. In fact, I’m not sure Reuben views his hosting persona as a ‘character’ at all, and I feel like he should. Reuben’s a charismatic host (in his own off-piste way), a bit like the slightly foolish but pretty amusing and endearing brother of the bride who’s tagged along to a stag weekend. But he delivers his commentary with a knowing smirk, even laughing along sometimes when met with particularly loud laughter.
I couldn’t help but feel his stories would be far funnier if he’d delivered them entirely deadpan, more in the vein of an Alan Partridge character than an extension of himself. There’d be great fun to be had in Reuben assuming the guise of a ‘ridiculously’ serious, weathered individual who looks simultaneously baffled and disgusted anytime anyone laughs. My suggestion would be to make himself part of the humour (entirely ignorant to how much ‘bullshit’ he is spouting) rather than just a vehicle to deliver it, and keep that act up until five seconds before the end of the experience.
Secondly, something that’d really elevate the tour from being fun to hugely impressive is if Reuben was able to weave real-time, unexpected ‘happenings’ that the group encounter into his overall narrative (and anti-establishment agenda). Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the multiplicity of uses of London streets during weekends, we came a couple of unusual sights. For us, a feature film happened to be in production in one of the nearby skyscrapers with a heavy police presence and huge number of vans and equipment lining the streets. On a nearby road, we also encountered a high-fashion photo shoot involving a model and a minor entourage.
These were great opportunities for Reuben to demonstrate real improvisational flair – but unfortunately, bar a belated reference to the policemen which didn’t feel quite as sharp as it should have, he tended to avoid commenting on these irregularities. An alternative to relying on improvisational wit would always be for Reuben to just make a list of 50 things that could conceivably happen during the tour and plan accordingly for each of them. It’s tiny moments like that which give the audience real confidence he knows exactly what he’s doing, and has the ability to accommodate anything into his narrative as if it was ‘meant’ to happen.
My final reservation is something Reuben admittedly can’t do much about, but as a Londoner, part of why the experience is really lovely and refreshing is it actually just makes you realise how you never stop to look. Look at London’s beauty, and look at why London is ridiculous and unjust. It was a fantastically sunny day when I participated in the tour, but I do wonder whether the experience would really hold together if it was pouring with rain. Participators of ‘real’, informative walking tours often stomach the rain – either because they’re only in the city for a couple of days, or because they deem the information they’ll obtain to be more valuable than the damp clothes they’ll have to endure. Londoners, expecting they probably won’t learn a great deal from a tour self-professing ‘bullshit’, may not be so accommodating – just as you’d be unlikely to find many Londoners watching even famous stand-ups in the pouring rain. I do just hope Reuben has a firm plan of action (probably involving an alternate, sheltered route) on wet weeks.
All in all, Bullshit London‘s The City Tour is entertaining, imaginative and a great reminder of the beauty (and weirdness) of our city. Now the concept is in place, and the structuring and route of The City Tour is proven to work, I recommend the company tries to (re)view their experience as a piece of true theatre: in particular, thinking about introducing a larger-than-life (and, in my opinion, outrageously ‘dreary’) character as the host. A commentator who’s just as funny as his commentary would take this tour from being a ‘decent-laugh-on-a-Sunday-afternoon’ kind of show to something people could easily rave about for weeks.