The Bush Theatre is suffering an identity crisis. Not in terms of artistic direction or anything quite so weighty, but on an aesthetic level it has morphed into the Shepherd’s Bush Empire next door (fortunately minus the sticky floors and overpriced lager).
There are faded gig posters lining the stairwell, a design motif carried through into the performance space itself. This is in aid of Mike Packer’s new play, an episodically hilarious comedy about a briefly-famous punk band who are forced to reunite after The Man – in this case an American credit card company offers them a substantial sum of money to use their best known song in a commercial.
The four members of The Dysfunkshonalz haven’t seen each other in almost three decades after a post-gig row turned bloody. Now their lead singer Billy Abortion is stacking shelves in a supermarket and none of the others have managed to make much of impact on the music business in the intervening years.
Still bursting with a resentment of the system (not to mention various medications), the volatile Billy is the last to accept the temptingly large cheque thrust their way, but he eventually caves along with the others and the four find themselves en route to the States and a launch party gig where they’ll have to trade their punk garb for logo-covered turtlenecks and sing new, corporate-approved lyrics.
Packer’s play has an undulating rhythm, lurching from out-and-out comedy to over-egged pathos, with some curiously flat sections in between. He can’t quite decide whether his characters’ adherence to the punk credo of their youth is admirable or pathetic. And, as a result, it is difficult to care overly in their predicament though some inspired performances flesh out the occasionally thin writing.
As Billy, Rupert Proctor, is all snarl and misdirected energy (one particularly frantic rant has you worrying he might do himself an injury). Pearce Quigley, as the bearded, dishevelled drummer, milks his every line to the max thanks to his superbly stoned and bemused delivery. And there’s something fitting abut Ralph Brown, the man who once wielded of a Camberwell Carrot, playing the straightest member of the group. Julia Ford is also strong as the band’s bassist, Louise Gash – the Nancy to Billy’s Sid.
The actors also get to perform their punk numbers including the anti-corporate Plastic People which the credit card company want to pilfer for their commercial unexpectedly turning this into a musical of sorts, which gives Tamara Harvey’s production a vibrancy that serves to gloss over some of the play’s weaker elements.
Though the writing takes some broad swipes at old men selling out, and makes explicit references to Johnny Rotten and his stint on I’m A Celebrity, it doesn’t really have a huge amount to say once the central premise is set up. The play is also hampered with some crudely sentimental moments, but as I said, through its energy and its sense of momentum, it manages to remain entertaining throughout even if the end product has far more snarl than actual bite.