Relentlessly silly and impossibly imaginative, Slightly Fat Features in VarietySoup is as good a family-friendly introduction to the world of cabaret and variety as they come.
The aesthetic could not be more perfect; Slightly Fat Features have gone to clear (and probably surprisingly costly) lengths to make everything in their 90-minute show look as haphazard, low-fi and precarious as possible. Dolly’s quote, ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap’, springs to mind – though I’d add ‘craft’ and ‘imagination’ in here. Much to the credit of that craft (and the troupe’s clearly seasoned clowning abilities), you sit in the Spiegeltent believing, and crucially wanting to believe, that these odd group of guys really might be a bunch of dads in mundane IT jobs who cram into someone’s garage whilst their kids are at ballet on Saturday mornings to get out their diabolos and have a ‘jam session’ with a difference. And whilst I’m sure that’s far from the truth, the belief that it *could* be makes it magic from the word go.
I’m not one to use hyperbole much, so you’ll have to trust me when I say Slightly Fat Features in VarietySoup, a one-off during the Underbelly’s summer season on the Southbank but returning for a full run this Christmas at the Leicester Square Theatre, is packed with some of the most imaginative and perfectly-pitched ideas I’ve ever seen in a variety show. Most impressively, perhaps, the vast majority appeals to adults as much as they do to 9-year olds – with relentless pacing (undeniably a positive in this instance…they’ve got ample premature attention spans to sustain), accomplished clowns – and genuinely impressive and ambitious circus.
Slightly Fat Features contains no through-line or narrative – and that’s absolutely fine, because it’s simultaneously pitched as an introduction, and homage, to the variety show. Recent attempts to weave more of a narrative into the format have been unsuccessful (I think about Underbelly’s terribly misfired The Ranch last year and shudder), and often mask what – at its heart – is somewhat substandard acts. No such problems here. The aesthetic and tone – a shameless and silly celebration of all things low-fi – is consistent from start to finish, and provides more than enough consistency for the piece to not feel disjointed or crudely meshed together.
Stuff goes wrong – diabolos misbehave, balls don’t always balance, precariously placed togas almost fall off and water dribbles out of mouths too early – but that’s absolutely fine too. In fact, it’s more than fine – you sit there enjoying it all the more for that, and wandering the extent to which it’s intentional. In the almost-so-perfect-it-must-be-photoshopped world of Cirque Du Soleil, and even after many large-scale performances often programmed by Underbelly which take themselves very seriously, it’s always a welcome relief when audiences are reminded that there *are* risks involved in the discipline. Perhaps not, during this performance, ones concerning life-or-death – but certainly ones concerning the show losing momentum and ending up dead in the water. Kids can be the most judgemental and unforgiving audiences of all, of course. Fortunately, it never comes anywhere near that; the performers take mishaps in their stride – and so do we.
Highlights include the 9-pin juggling opener, an excellent example of the troupe’s seasoned ability to have jokes lined up to break the tension during any and every possible mistake (not that there were many, it was as slick a juggling act as any you see in La Clique or similar). Extended comedy routines involving heads popping out of tables, lion onesies and a lot of clingfilm appeal to kids for their silliness as much as to adults for their inventiveness and are executed with precision and bucketloads of old-school flair; you have to respect a troupe that are able to get laugh after laugh after laugh out of little more than a cardboard box at times. And whilst the piece, as a whole, could have been greater still, I think, with the inclusion of a couple more circus acts (perhaps an acrobat, or a comedy hula hoop routine – there’s ample opportunity to build a routine around one getting ‘stuck’ around the belly of the drummer, surely), it was everything I hoped it would be to get kids ‘into’ cabaret whilst they’re young and so impressionable.
It’s so uncool that it’s deeply cool. You need to bring your families, or just go with your mates, when it’s in Leicester Square.