Can't Stomp the music

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2005, 12:00am

'IT GETS WORSE,' Luke Cresswell says. 'Some days are worse than others. But it's under control at the moment.'

No, Cresswell hasn't chosen this interview to fess up to an alcohol problem. But what he has is just as addictive: he just can't stop tapping his fingers and drumming out rhythms on the car dashboard. But from the director of the percussion musical Stomp, you'd expect nothing less.

Since 1992, Cresswell and his business partner Steve McNicholas have made their living primarily from Stomp as it tours the globe. The last time the show hit Hong Kong was in 1998 and it's about to return for another sell-out series of performances next month.

Not bad for a show that originated as a fringe theatre performance.

Cresswell and McNicholas started working together in 1982. McNicholas was the singer in a band called Cliffhanger and Cresswell was the drummer in a busking act titled Pookiesnackenburger. 'The two groups came together and we did a street musical,' McNicholas says. 'Stomp really emerged from that. Luke didn't want to be a drummer who sat at the back and did nothing, so he found a way of making himself mobile.'

'I'd start drumming while hanging off buildings,' Cresswell says. 'In Brighton [on the south coast of England], I'd be the avant-garde drummer hanging upside down in a club while Fatboy Slim would be on the decks.'

Cresswell and McNicholas took their bizarre piece of street theatre - which involved cast members bashing out repetitive, catchy rhythms using everyday objects - to London's Covent Garden, a popular outdoor venue for performers and musicians. From there they headed to the Edinburgh Festival.

There was no narrative to the performance - it seemed to be simply a group of people thrown together against the backdrop of a decaying urban corner of a nameless city, who come together through the music they make. And there was nothing they couldn't use to create a rhythm - from thumping folding chairs shut to the 'thwoink' of a sink plunger sucking on the stage floor, upturned dustbins, broom handles and lighters.

'No one knew how to describe what we did at first,' Cresswell says. 'And we never sold out or even made our money back. But all the other performers would come to see us, so we knew we were on to something good.'

However, nothing could have told them just how good it would get. In just a couple of years, Stomp would go global and make Cresswell and McNicholas a lot of money.

After a sell-out run at the Sadler's Wells theatre, Stomp moved to the Orpheum Theatre in New York in 1994. And 11 years later it's still going strong, having won countless awards, including an Olivier for best choreography. Under the directorship of Cresswell and McNicholas, the cast have had sell-out tours all over the world, including an extended version of the show at the Acropolis in Athens.

'After Sadler's Wells we were offered a West End run in London, but the show was so young and we had New York knocking on the door, so we went to America and returned to London eight years later,' Cresswell says.

Today, there are five Stomp companies, of which three are touring. The New York and London productions are permanent fixtures. Stomp drummers come from a range of backgrounds - some are drummers to begin with, others are actors and some are dancers. It takes between six and seven weeks to teach a cast member the numbers. 'Then they can get through the show,' Creswell says. 'But it takes a year to get really good.'

Cresswell and McNicholas are still involved with Stomp 13 years after its inception. 'Once we got to New York we weren't allowed to stop doing it,' Cresswell says. 'We'd signed a deal with producers in America that said we had to stay with it until it closed. Thirteen years later it's still on in New York and we haven't been able to get out.' He's laughing as he says this - after all, being a victim of your own success isn't such a bad thing.

'At the beginning we were heading out to New York twice a month, but now someone from the original cast watches over it for us,' Cresswell says. 'We have to keep our hands on to some extent - it's not something you can walk away from because people would fall into bad habits. It's not conventional theatre - the performers need to know what's going on. And it's forever changing.

'A lot of people in the show have been doing it for eight years. If they carry on like this they'll be pensioners.'

Cresswell and McNicholas have found time for other projects - even if most of them are Stomp-related. There was 1995's Brooms which was loosely based on the opening sequence of Stomp: a street sweeper faces the task of cleaning up the local market, but is joined by a group of other street cleaners, and the whole thing descends into a cacophony of rhythm.

There was also an IMAX film for which Cresswell and McNicholas travelled around the globe finding out about the rhythms that influenced Stomp ('most people want to see films about the Grand Canyon, but when audiences see our film they're laughing and clapping, which you rarely see at an IMAX').

There was also a full-length movie, Vacuums, starring Chevy Chase in 2002 which bombed. They're now 'flirting with an idea for a new show', but can't say what it is because it's on the verge of being commissioned. What they will say is that it involves 3D. '3D is going to be huge again,' McNicholas says. 'Technology is much better now - it's a totally different ball game to Jaws 3D.'

When Stomp returns to Hong Kong there'll be some surprises. 'We were last there in 1998 and only about one-third of the stuff audiences saw back then is still in the show,' Cresswell says.

Despite it being previewed primarily on children's television in Britain, he insists the show's for everybody. 'It's an open show that kids can enjoy. The first shows we did at the Edinburgh Festival were at midnight. In America, Stomp was featured on the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows. So it says something about how they pigeon-hole entertainment in Britain.'

According to London's Time Out, 'Stomp does for rhythm what Freud does for sex.' This amuses Cresswell. 'I think someone's obviously having a bad sex life,' he says.

Stomp, Sept 6-11, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, $295, $495; students $250, $295; family packages $1,580 (except Fri and Sat nights). Inquiries: 3128 8288