Review by Daz Gale
Something new has been cooking at The Turbine Theatre in Battersea and this one might seem familiar to many of you. Based on the cult TV series Breaking Bad, the brilliantly named Faking Bad (The unauthorised Parody METHsical) aims to condense 62 hours of television in less than 2 hours. What could possibly go wrong? As someone who was a fan of the original series and who loves a good parody, I knew this was a show I couldn’t miss.
If you aren’t familiar with the premise of the show, Breaking Bad saw chemistry teacher Walter White team up with former student Jesse Pinkman to create methamphetamine and watch a lot of people die in the meantime. If that doesn’t sound like the most obvious premise for a laugh-out-loud parody, that’s understandable but nonetheless, that is what has been attempted here. The show’s premise and serious tone giving way to such absurdity could have created a lot of hilarity. However, the laughs here were few and far between.
The problem with Faking Bad is that its hit rate was predominantly unsuccessful. Though the show had a few genuinely funny one-liners (a “rings a bell” pun tickled me after I left the theatre), too many of them fell flat. This became an immediate concern when a far too niche comment about a supporting character's eyebrows failed to elicit a laugh which resulted in the joke being explained, and still failing to get a response. There is the argument that you need to be a die-hard Breaking Bad obsessive to pick up on every niche reference going, but that creates a wildly inaccessible show for the more casual viewer, or someone who isn’t familiar with the show at all and just wants to have a good laugh at the theatre.
Faking Bad aims to be a very stupid show, which is admirable in itself. Its flaw, however, is underestimating the intelligence that is necessary to create such stupidity on stage. When you think of recent successful comedies like Police Cops and Operation Mincemeat, there is a meticulously thought-out process behind each punchline. While these shows may seem stupid on the surface, at the heart of it, they are deeply clever. This sort of humour and writing was severely lacking in Faking Bad with punchlines ranging from obvious to unsatisfying, more often eliciting a groan than a laugh.
Playing up to the characters in the show to really exaggerate certain traits of this felt like a missed opportunity. While Hank got some standout moments as he tried to educate everybody on minerals, other characters such as the paper-thin version of Jesse felt like a missed opportunity, with far too few utterances of his favourite B word throughout. The most successful character was the ridiculous transformation of Walter’s son into the puppet “Teeny Weeny Walt” – a pastiche of Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol, with a distinctive speaking style. This absurdity was the sort of madness the audience was looking for, and had me longing for more of this far too limited character. The success of this element also showed up in the problematic writing of the other characters.
Turning Breaking Bad into a musical is an intriguing prospect but it didn’t quite come together here. With a mish-mash of styles creating a jarring and confusing soundtrack, the lyrics felt rushed and shoehorned in with the most obvious rhymes again lacking the intelligence necessary to pull off a show who wants to be stupid with “I am the one who knocks, I am the one who rocks” before a guitar solo setting the tone for the standard on offer throughout.
More successful, however, were the talented cast on offer. Though hampered by the writing, they did the best they could do and showcased their talents, despite the limitations on offer to them. Richard Costello was brilliantly brooding as Walter White, with his consistently forlorn nature making him a standout, and with a gorgeous singing voice to boot. Nikki Biddington was woefully underused in her variety of roles, including Jesse, but the time she was on stage was a delight. Natalie Winsor thrilled with the exaggerated characterisations of Tuco, Gus, and Skylar, though each character needed a little bit more fleshing out. The cast was completed by writer Rob Gathercole who was an undoubted standout in his characterisations of several iconic characters. It was his versions of Hank and Soul that provided the most successful on the night, with a great knack for comic timing. It was these characters that left me thinking a more simplified version of the story may have been more beneficial, perhaps telling it from the supporting characters' viewpoint instead?
The opening of act two, condensing the entirety of season three into a fantastic sequence including shadow puppets is a highlight in a show that visually is stronger than its content, with director Andrew Beckett's set design always entertaining with its little secrets, and Matt Hockley's lighting a highlight among the creative elements at play here.
Theatre fans may be entertained by a smattering of musical references throughout with nods to The Book of Mormon and The Phantom of the Opera included amongst its dialogue. There is also a very on-the-nose reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber that perhaps could have used a bit more nuance. In that and other moments that had the potential to be a lot funnier than it actually was, such as when Teeny Weeny Walt breaks character altogether in a foul-mouthed rant, the timing is lost, creating a flawed execution. A little bit more precision and tweaks to the teeniest of words could land a much bigger impact.
While Faking Bad had a great premise and a wealth of materials at its disposal to create a brilliantly hilarious production, unfortunately, it failed to deliver on its promise. With so many jokes falling flat and writing that frustrated in its simplicity, it did a disservice to the wonderful cast that was ready to perform and deserved a much stronger reaction. That’s not to say this show is completely irredeemable with certain ideas and characters creating the blueprint for what could be a much funnier show. My suggestion would be to try and avoid throwing so many ideas together and realise that a few stronger ideas could create a much more cohesive show. Theatre is subjective though, as is humour. It was interesting to look around the audience to see a mix of people failing to laugh and others who clearly enjoyed the show more than I did. As always, I would encourage you to go and make your own mind up and support new shows such as this one. In my own opinion, however, Faking Bad is less meth and more meh.
Faking Bad plays at The Turbine Theatre until 28th October. Tickets from https://www.theturbinetheatre.com/whats-on/faking-bad
Photos by Danny Kaan