Review by Harry Bower
When I reviewed three-man multi-award-winning comedy group Police Cops in February of this year at VAULT Festival, I described their show, Badass Be Thy Name, as “one of the very best pieces of fringe theatre I have ever seen”. I closed that review by saying how much I was looking forward to seeing their next show. Now the Cops are back. Their musical undertakes a four-week residency at Southwark Playhouse fresh off the back of a successful Edinburgh Fringe run. To make good on my earlier promise I set off for the Playhouse with hope in my heart, that I wouldn’t be arrested by my disappointment. And boy, am I thrilled to report my findings. It is sublime.
For anyone unfamiliar with the work of Police Cops, imagine a blend of outrageously silly physical theatre, genius homemade props, dozens of costume changes, so-bad-they’re-good-accents, clever use of set, and much more besides. These writers and performers exist in a world in which the joke is prioritised over almost everything else. Laughter is king, and satire woven into the very fibre of each character not as an afterthought but in their core. Relentlessly inventive and original ideas are hurled at the audience like hand grenades of fun, only to disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced immediately by the next.
Set in the nostalgic and colourful 1980s, this creation opens with an introduction to our hero Jimmy Johnson (Zachary Hunt), desperate to become the best Police Cop ever, in response to the tragic murder of his sister by a criminal. A time jump brings us to Jimmy living his dream, only to be derailed by Chief Molloy (Nathan Parkinson) assigning him a new case: to bring down the evil Mexican drug lord Hernandez. To do so he must partner up with a retired veteran cop, Harrison, and together they pursue their criminal through the streets of the city and, eventually, to Mexico, where Jimmy learns what it truly means to be a great Police Cop. The plot itself is to begin with paper thin, but as it develops and these characters immerse themselves in building an ever more ridiculous over the top world, it earns its weight.
The score is catchy and sounds full, despite just a handful of live musicians sat side stage – the creation of the mind behind this year’s other 80s inspired musical, Eugenius!, which was revived at the Turbine Theatre in Spring. Ben Adams has once again created songs which are destined for cult status, choruses still ringing in my ears hours after leaving the theatre. Opening number, The U.S Eighties, is suitably grand and warm in its scene setting, and is followed by probably the most objectively funny number in the show – Unexpectedly Die – in which Jimmy’s sister talks him through what he should do if she were to suddenly be killed (no prizes for guessing what happens next).
As well as being catchy, these tracks pack a punch, too. Gotta Be Something Meaningful opens act two with a hilarious attack line on an orphanage and work with underprivileged kids, and Down in Mexico has something intelligent to say in a very blunt way about racism and America’s argument with itself about its neighbours to the south. These tracks are so successful because they follow well-worn footsteps. Unexpectedly Die has shades of If You Were Gay from AvenueQ, and the act one closer, Hard On, is similar tonally to Man Up, the act one closer in Book of Mormon. What Police Cops and Adams have managed to weave together, is a soundtrack which takes inspiration from existing outrageous and hugely successful musical theatre and create something original which stands on its own two feet as both intelligent and catchy. I will now surely be singing Am I an Americant? all week.
Police Cops, as a company of three, needed some help in crafting a more immersive world full of their zany character creations. Enter Melinda Orengo and Natassia Bustamente, two rising stars who dare to attempt – and succeed at – matching the trio’s electric energy. Each brings their own marvellous sense of comic timing to their 10+ character roles and a pair of stunning voices to the musical numbers. And that’s not to downplay the talent of Zachary Hunt, Nathan Parkinson and Tom Roe who make up Police Cops core. Their acting, physical theatre, vocal range and comedy writing skill is sky high. To anyone reading this review, they really must be seen to be believed.
Matt Coles, the Olivier Award winner behind Disney’s Newsies, is responsible for the wacky, unrelenting and at times giggle-inducing choreography which dominates each scene and furthers Police Cops’ claim for funniest show of 2023. The physical theatre is integrated so seamlessly into every scene and interaction that at times it props up the show subtly and frees the performers, musicians and technicians to prepare for the next of many misdirects and pieces of mesmerising stagecraft. The combat in the piece is convincing simply because, like everything else in this show, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Or seriously at all, in fact.
If I’m being critical, I would have tightened up the introduction to our hero which took a few lines of dialogue to settle in, and there are a handful of lyrics in which you might be able cram a few more jokes in; but if there is more critical feedback to be given than that, then it went straight over my head. Probably because I was focusing on how much my face was hurting from laughing.
The nature of fringe theatre is that the low budget homemade props and set add something to the feel of a show. When productions move into bigger spaces, it must be tempting to use some of that space differently or to invest in more robust props. Police Cops have done well to create a set which looks smart and yet retains a sense of fringe about it in their current off-West End home. The props are as delightfully homemade and unreliable as they’ve ever been, a part of the group’s charm and an integral part of keeping the laughter unrelenting during the performance. Babies on strings, giant subtitles, hats and quick changes, finger guns, huge flags, puppets and wrestling – you name it – almost every possible clever prop device has been used here plus plenty that you won’t be able to name yet because they’re so cool and unusual. The bar table was a highlight for me, and those who have seen the show will understand why. Audience interaction, an improvised segment, and the occasional (intentional and wonderful) corpsing, are all put to great effect.
In February I said that Police Cops reminded me of The Mighty Boosh, or Shaun of the Dead. I’d add to that Police Squad (or anything with Lesley Neilson) and basically anything animated. Musically it has shades of both musicals referenced above, and of a certain zany five-person musical which recently bounced its way between The New Diorama and Southwark Playhouse, before ultimately shining in the West End… I’ve seen this movie before. I also said back then that comparisons are pointless; and I stand by that. Police Cops have crafted their own style, and it is stupendously successful, and already proving addictive. This show is what you get when an entire generation are parented by Family Guy box sets and Grand Theft Auto games.
Sat in that audience I felt like I was witnessing something special. For original content it is remarkably high quality, delivered by a cast clearly having the time of their lives, and it is packed with so much satire and societal commentary which is impossible to pick up in its entirety on first viewing. How do you resolve that? You book to see it again, obviously, which I have already done. If you have a spare night before the show closes on 14 October, you really must go and see it. Book now so that you can say you were there before this group’s inevitable future success which is as nailed on as it can be possible to be.
Police Cops: The Musical plays at Southwark Playhouse until 14 October 2023. For more information visit: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/police-cops-the-musical/
Photos by Pamela Raith