Review: Camden Fringe 2023 – Ready Steady Crooks!, John & Christian present: Battle Counters + Invasion! An Alien Musical

A first set of reviews from the opening week of Camden Fringe 2023 – Ready Steady Crooks!, John & Christian present: Battle Counters and Invasion! An Alien Musical

“You better count all those battles”

It doesn’t take much to heat up the intimate space of the Hope Theatre but it is worth sweltering in there for the hot comic stylings of Ready Steady Crooks! Blessed with some of the best musical cues you’ll see all year (the ‘Levitating’ montage, the Cardigans moment – blissfully funny!) and a delightfully absurd vein of humour that isn’t afraid of going dark or cutting close to the bone, it is a hugely entertaining show.

Written and performed by Benjamin McMahon, Luke Clarence Johnson and Sam Stafford, Head Chef, Sous Chef and Pot Wash live a double life as high-end chefs and exclusive robbers. But even trying to explain any of the capers they get up to is to get on a hiding to nothing. Rest assured that you won’t want to miss Bendy Wendy, or the jar of cum, or the dastardly Fuckit…etc etc. Highly energetic and brilliantly inventive in its zaniness, these are guys to watch out for.

Similarly dynamic and daft was John & Christian present: Battle Counters. It’s a spoof of a certain brand of children’s TV, with their stated reference points being Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Beyblade. Because I’m old, I don’t know any of those but for me, it recalled something of the He-Man and Dungeons and Dragons cartoons that I watched. Either way, it riffs off the many tropes of the genre with genuine affection whilst also dissecting it with a deliciously sharp wit.

Again, there’s little justice to trying to describe the plot. Cal Counters is a small-town American boy, obsessed with the game Battle Counters! who soon finds himself on a great quest to defeat the evil Count Numbers. There’s audience interaction, a real earworm of a theme song, and delightfully deprecating humour from writer/performers John Chisham and Christian Loveless which has a real generosity of spirit to go with its often hilarious twists and turns.

Last up in this first week of Camden Fringe for me was Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s Invasion! An Alien Musical which didn’t quite match up, for me at least. Elements of that come down to the production – a muddy sound balance that amplified music over vocals, sacrificing much-needed lyrical clarity even in as small a space as Camden People’s Theatre. And a decided inconsistency in tone pulls us from shouty slapstick to attempted pathos via raucous rompery with little lasting impact.

With book by Jonathan Powell and Jasper Robin and music by Lily Blundell, the aim is to pastiche shows like Little Shop of Horrors but to establish the kind of emotional core to underpin the accompanying alien invasion shenanigans in the space of an hour is no easy feat. As it is, the fate of Johnny Fox, a theme-park worker who finds the fate of humanity in his hands as he does battle with his childhood toy who is actually part of a nefarious alien hive mind, feels flatly derivative (as does much of the score) and lacking the comedy or acuity to make us engage.

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