Rob Castell, Tom Sadler, Mark Hole, Lara Stubbs
The UK’s chances of winning the Eurovision Song Contest may now be seriously hamstrung thanks to those pesky eastern Europeans and their dishonorable bloc voting, but in the barbershop quartet version of the competition, hilariously depicted in this inventive festive musical treat at Theatre503, Britain has plenty to shout about.
Crucially too, like previous Eurovision winners Lordi (those heavy metal Finnish orcs) and Israeli transsexual Dana International, the UK entry possess something special that marks them out from the competition.
Unusually for the normally exclusively male world of the barbershop quartet, Toni & The Guys have a female among their number.
The story of how the quartet come to have a warbling female opera singer in their ranks, triumph in the UK heats and take on the evil Swiss team in the Eurovision Christmas Barbershop Contest in Ljubljana is told a capella style by a real life ‘comedy barbershop quartet’ of the same name. It’s the kind of setup that has the potential to be teeth suckingly dire for non doo-wop devotees, but thanks to some inspired musical compositions and pastiches, thoroughly impressive singing and a Christmas medley to end all Christmas medleys, it’s more than worth the return fare to Battersea.
The punning names of our troupe Toni Soprano, Al Legro, Frank Sonata and Hugh B. Doo, who “sings much lower than the other two” gives you an indication of the sophistication of the humour on offer here. Their Swiss rivals (also played by Toni & The Guys), who hatch a plan to kidnap Toni before the big event, are similarly cartoonish, singing lines such as, “if they ever mention yodeling, we will drown them in fondue”.
Yet such quibbles seem a tad mean-spirited in the face of such brilliantly arranged and daftly amusing music routines, which remain in bona fide barbershop style unaccompanied throughout. Rob Castell and Tom Sadler’s original compositions ‘Operagirl’, which introduces “diva on the dole” Toni, and the amusingly homoerotic ‘Then There Were Two’, when Hugh and Toni’s burgeoning romance forces Al and Frank to briefly go it alone, reveal why they scooped Best Lyrics at the Musical Theatre Matters Awards this year. The foursome’s numerous covers, meanwhile, from opera standards like The Marriage of Figaro to Eye of the Tiger and the Final Countdown, are gleefully silly reinventions, helping them lampoon a slew of pop culture clichs from the training montage to the slo mo celebration. Best of all is the strobe light infused silent movie chase when The Guys attempt to rescue Toni from the clutches of the Swiss team.
If Barbershopera hits any duff notes, it’s when it tries to be too clever-clever with the music gags. A skit on Handel might be funny for Grade 8 music students, but went over most of the audience’s head. Where Toni & The Guys succeed in being sophisticated is their musical arrangements a feat which comes to glorious fruition in their Christmas medley for the final round at Ljubljana. Taking in a barrage of Christmas staples a capella style, from Santa Baby to Wham’s Last Christmas, Silent Night to E17’s Stay Another Day, it left the four performers dripping with sweat. It should have you glowing with festive cheer.