“In these upsetting times, it’s important to have something to laugh about. Welcome, friends, to Boris – The Musical!, the satirical Brexit tale of Britain’s finest politiclown.”
There are many musicals that, on paper, just categorically should not work: Romeo and Juliet set in late 1950s New York City between dancing street gangs (West Side Story); an unstoppably carnivorous plant who croons between bites of limbs (Little Shop of Horrors); a hip-hopera about the least well known Founding Father and his uphill struggle to establish the National Bank of the United States (multi-Tony award winning cultural zeitgeist-shifting Hamilton). And, this summer, a musical about the bumbling rise and very public fall of Boris Johnson, with a budget so tiny that – and I quote – they could only accommodate “one dodgy wig”. And yet here it is, courtesy of fringe group Blowfish Theatre.
Contemporary productions, musical or otherwise, are always at risk of going out of date, at odds with the ever-shifting landscape of current affairs. And though I overheard rumours of a potential Jeremy Corbyn musical in the theatre bar, satirical biographical musicals of active politicians are virtually unheard of. A fringe musical that endeavours to cover as much party political gossip from last year’s EU Referendum onwards as possible, then, seems tantamount to theatrical suicide. But apparently not: here it is, very much alive and kicking its reflector-cuffed trouser legs.
In the programme’s own words, “British politics feels like a pantomime at the minute. We’re just taking our lead from the top.” Part of this fringe musical’s ingeniousness comes from the creative team’s adaptability and their ability to bash out, rehearse and refine whole new numbers in a matter of weeks in order to keep up with spiraling current events. The programme was printed before they got to add lyrics for all the songs in their extra “Election Section”, which covers Theresa May’s snap election and all the mortifying political consequences therein.
In order to power through all this rich material, Boris – The Musical! draws from a wide pool of musical inspiration: from the lyrical dexterity and hip-hop manifestos of Hamilton, to the practically trademarked finger snaps and intense red lighting of West Side Story; from The Sound of Music (“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Boris?”), to “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem. They even find time to adapt “Flash” by Queen.
Just as the Eton classes of the ’80s are often described as “Born to Rule”, so too does David Burchhardt seem born to play the eponymous role of Boris. His physical commitment to the MP’s mannerisms, verbal tics and movements straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks makes him wonderfully believable (although the aforementioned blond wig also does its fair share of the work). Burchhardt interacts with the audience before, during and after the musical, right down to the last thirty seconds before the (gold) curtain goes up. Thankfully for all involved, he plays up the charm off stage, saving the pure wackiness for the main event — two of several odes to himself, “Me and My Johnson” and “Super Mayor” are as dreadfully saucy and brilliantly cheesy as his role dares to go.
Impressively, there’s enough room for other sizeable egos to get their moment in their spotlight. Liz Kearney makes for an aptly awkward and bloody-minded Theresa May, but she is even more scarily at ease with playing Michael Gove, amplifying him into a caricature I hadn’t even realised was there for the mining. Gove ascends from a nerdy “grammar upstart” second banana, ostracised for not attending Eton, to a stone-cold backstabber for whom Machiavelli would surely weep tears of pride. Kearney’s highlight comes during the gospel-heavy, hilariously evangelical number “BeLeave” (kitted out with silk blue robes), in which the fervently vague exhortations to “take back control” are all too reminiscent of the twenty-third of June 2016.
I can’t help but wonder how certain numbers would go down in more Tory-dominated counties. The Boris – The Musical! creative team just about pulls off a balanced satire – where all sides are fair game – with a Jeremy Corbyn rap section that nails the quasi-cultish optimism that helped the Labour leader make the bounciest political comeback of the twenty-first century thus far. Though very much a musical by the Left for the Left, the general mood is one of maniacal cackling at the escalating absurdity behind every curtain of the British political stage. Additionally, the team makes it clear in their promotional material that feedback of all kinds is welcome: “We’d particularly like to hear from any audience members who feel we’re just a bunch of houmous-eating, Brexit-denying, Guardianistas.”
Speaking of audiences, yes, there is some interaction, but fear not — it’s mostly conducted from behind the fourth wall, and even when the actors ventured down to the seats, the most I was obliged to do was reciprocate an effusively Boris-esque handshake. Then again, I was several rows from the front; if in the first row, you will almost certainly be on the receiving end of one of many (many, many) pelvic thrusts.
Credit is also due to Polly Bycroft-Brown as David “Dave” Cameron, the ideal stony and self-assured foil to Boris’s ever-volatile affability. Kyle Williams, co-creative director and actor, plays a miscellany of roles, most notably David “Dimbledore” Dimbleby (who, against all odds, retains an air of dignity in the wake of the Referendum), a Russian immigrant utterly perplexed by British behavioural double standards, and a brief (if perhaps unnecessary) cameo as Mrs Johnson. Writer, co-creative director and guitarist Laurence Peacock’s turn as Jeremy Corbyn (“my man Jezza C”) is nothing short of masterful, from the moment he throws his red tie to the ground and lays down some choice beats, to the moment he stops rapping and sheepishly retrieves it.
Additional commendations go to Craig Smith’s percussion, Hollie Morrell’s keys and supporting vocals, and Dominic Lo’s thoroughly well executed musical direction which, for one number – in a sentence I never thought I would type – involves a splendid use of kazoos. Overall, the cozy nature of fringe venues dissolves the usual divide between the musicians and the stage, allowing them to visibly and actively contribute to the communal hilarity in the face of despair.
The Edinburgh Free Fringe will be the ideal environment in which Boris – The Musical! can thrive, flooded as it is with a sea of liberal theatregoers from all over the nation (or at least, what’s left of it). And, with a Trump musical advertised for late 2017 (after all, why not make the most of the blond wig?), I can see Blowfish Theatre deservedly becoming a regular fixture in the near future. Having said that, by the time we get to August, they may have amassed too much new material to fit in without being forced to add an interval.
Boris – The Musical! is currently on tour. It will be at Z-arts, Manchester, 8pm from 27th-29th July, at Bourbon Bar, Edinburgh Free Fringe (with a cash collection afterwards) 7:15pm from 5th – 11th August, and at Cockpit Theatre, London, 7pm 23rd – 25th August 2017. For more information and tickets see here.
 Peacock, L. and Williams, K. (Directors). (2017, June 23). Boris – The Musical! by Laurence Peacock and Blowfish Theatre [Programme]. Waterloo East Theatre, London