Musique Royale (The Suitcase Royale, ‘The Ballad of Backbone Joe’ – Soho Theatre, 4/7/2011)

It’s not an unusual sight to see comedy troupes wielding rickety props and ramshackle accents in spoof genre plays. Nor is it surprising when they pick up instruments mid-sketch and launch into some appropriate ditty. Australian three-piece The Suitcase Royale invigorate each of these approaches by neatly combining them. Their tale of small-town Australian life (think crooked boxing promoters, detectives, and dark secrets all round) is intercut and underlain with live and recorded music, ranging from cod-jazz crooning to numbers more in the vein of early Johnny Cash or Roy Orbison.

The music itself is very good, in particular the rockabilly pastiches. But where The Suitcase Royale excel is how it is deployed. It would have been easy to play the songs for laughs, particularly considering that the humour and acting style of the show isn’t exactly on the subtle side. There are plenty of winks to the audience, frequent departures from the script, and much fun had with props such as outsize telephone receivers and the skeleton of what looked like a dog but might conceivably have been some obscure marsupial.

But the music mostly works very differently, creating an oddly melancholic atmosphere. This is true even of the songs between scenes, which tended neither to comment directly on the action nor advance it, but to work more in the way background music in films typically does. Mixing this with broad comedy was potentially awkward, but for the most part the different elements were integrated seamlessly. The music helped to create the world of the genre being spoofed, helped by some delicious lighting and judicious sound effects. The spoofing was left to the script and the performers, who were generally more than up to snuff.

The effect is curious, switching from inviting us to sympathise with the characters to laughing at them, and back again. On paper it sounds awkward, as though the cast are forever removing bricks from the fourth wall and peeping through, before filling the gap again. But probably because we’re so familiar with the tropes and the feel of the tough-guy genre, and because those noirish touches are always themselves close to the line between genuine emotion and parody, we can move easily with them. The Suitcase Royale pulled our strings as surely as they played their instruments. I felt used, but in a good way.

The Suitcase Royale are performing Zombatland at Pleasance Courtyard, 11.10pm, until August 28th (except 16th).

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