Bash, drum, rock'n'roll

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


Faster, Fresher, Funnier' is the tagline for the revitalised version of the British percussion show Stomp. But does the 90-minute performance live up to this promise after being around for two decades?

In the first sequence, eight performers push brooms and reveal peculiar rhythms in the combination of softness and bristles along with meaningless language (swish, swish, 'a'right?', 'a'right'). These are bamboo warriors, fierce, comic and grungy, who make music out of everything including kitchen sinks (making for a splendid set piece of stainless steel sinks full of splashing water being carried like drums in a marching band of clowns) and a new piece involving all the performers wearing huge black inner tractor tubes which make terrific bouncing drum kits.

The eeriest sound is created by tubes made of rubber cut to different lengths and banged against the stage (and, in a deliciously urban version of slapstick, on one Stomper's head), while the performers are joshing wordlessly about who has the longest tube.

The latest update is probably faster and quite likely fresher - but it's certainly funnier, with all clowning possibilities pushed gently to the fore.

Stomp started at the Edinburgh Festival exactly 20 years ago. It was a spin-off of a TV beer commercial which involved street percussionists playing energetically on dustbins.

'We had no money, the show was 50 minutes long, and the suspension was a rickety old scaffolding thing with rubbish that we'd collected from all over Edinburgh,' says the show's producer Glynis Henderson at her North London home.

'Looking back we'd think: 'Oh my God it was a bit basic' but at the time everyone was raving.'

The metamorphosis from obscure Edinburgh show to world touring company was slow.

'After Edinburgh we did ad hoc dates in Italy and a few other places including the Sydney Festival ... and I remember what they paid us and you couldn't pay one Stomper that now,' Henderson says.

The trouble is, it was always a difficult sell until people had seen it for themselves. It is, after all, a musical with no tunes, no stars, no words, and no instruments.

'There was always this reaction like 'yes, but what's so interesting about a load of guys playing with dustbin lids?',' Henderson says.

But the slowness of its success had an advantage for the show's creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicolas, Henderson says. 'It forced them to develop a better show.' What they created lasted for years, expanding to several companies playing round the world at any one time - right now there is one in Guam, one in London, two in the US, and a fifth company of veteran Stompers getting ready to play in Hong Kong.

There are 12 performers in any one company: eight on stage and four as 'swings', coming in to give the others a break. 'Some promoters will say, 'Oh you're only doing three or four shows at our venue, so you'll only need to bring eight performers' but that's not how it works,' says Henderson.

All of the performers cannot play all of the parts, she explains. 'In fact some performers can only perform one part.'

It can be exhausting, and Stompers get a lot of cuts and sprains, shin fractures and ligament problems; and they're often laid off for several weeks. 'They can pull muscles like athletes, that's why we need so many swings,' Henderson says.

There is only one Stomper who has lasted the 20 years: a Scot, Fraser Morrison, 48, now the casting director, is one of the originals. 'Fraser is reed-like. He's a completely bright light character. He used to smoke like a trooper and he likes a drink but he's just in life. He's the kind of person who never sits down.'

Henderson recalls an occasion when she and the show's creators Creswell and McNicholas were stuck in a departure lounge with one of the Stomp crews, after a flight was delayed.

'The three of us were sitting down like grownups, and the 12 of them were jiving and bantering and messing around. And I said, 'My God, Steve, it's like you chose 12 schools and picked the naughtiest kid from each school and put them all together in Stomp.' And he said: 'Have you only just realised that?''

They recruit only every six or seven years: 'We have just done one: it was fascinating. We needed to bump up the numbers, because a few of the Stompers had settled down, got kids, so decided to leave.' They put two advertisements in The Stage, a British newspaper for the arts, for open auditions at London's The Ambassadors Theatre, where the show is playing.

'Anyone could come. We're a non-Equity company. I got a taxi to the theatre, and when we arrived the cab driver said, 'What's going on here?' and I thought: 'Oh wow!''

A total of 695 hopeful Stompers had turned up, with the queue snaking round the block and down towards Leicester Square. Of that, the company selected eight, who are all going through extensive training right now.

Henderson has not counted how many Stompers there have ever been. 'I could say 200. Or 300. Or maybe even 400,' she ventures.

Cresswell and McNicholas, also the show's directors and choreographers, are still heavily involved, but it is now their part-time job. In the rest of their time they make movies.

Some are as noisy as you might expect - there is a 3-D Stomp in the works - but Cresswell has also started to explore a more silent world. He has made two underwater films about the runs of the sardine, and about the coral dying - 'they're very beautiful and thought-provoking though they're not a blockbuster'.

'We were in Miami and went to a Chinese restaurant. Luke opened the menu and said, 'We have to leave'. The manager asked why, and Luke said he couldn't support a restaurant that served shark fin. He says that in five or 10 years there won't be enough sharks.'

This kind of strong ethical undercurrent lies beneath many of their decisions about Stomp. Not just about being a multi-racial company paying performers well above the industry average. But also about where they play.

Henderson talked about one of her proudest moments. In 1999 they were invited to play the Caesaria amphitheatre in Tel Aviv, 'and Luke and Steve said they would only play if they could also play in Palestine. And I was charged to get it done,' she recalls. 'I went over to Ramallah to talk to the Palestine International Festival. They thought I was nuts when I said I wanted to do a show for free. But they agreed, and they put up a stage with bleacher seating and it was really rickety. People were so poor. There were dozens of young boys around, clicking their fingers and drumming. They hadn't seen anything like it. Not long later, Ramallah was blown to bits. I often wonder what happened to those boys.'

Stomp 11, Tuesday to Nov 6, Lyric Theatre, HK Academy for Performing Arts. Tickets: HK$350-HK$950. Inquiries: