Last week I finally made it to the Southwark Playhouse, an outing which I have been promising myself for some time now. The theatre is located on Newington Causeway, not particularly a road where you expect to find culture, fun and laughter, and so coming across all of these things there on a dark December night was a lovely surprise.
We were there to see Licensed to Ill, the show which was originally developed with Camden People’s Theatre and which had a sell-out run there in 2015. It is the unofficial story about the Beastie Boys, how the three guys got together in New York in the 80’s as hardcore punks, and about how their journey takes them to hip hop notoriety. Without the Beastie Boys, people say, there would have been no Eminem – and did you know that Licensed to Ill was the first no 1 hip hop album?
From the word go the show is fun. We walk into the intimate studio to take our seats and find a three-piece band doing some funky instrumental riffing on the stage right in front of us. They are all wearing comedy ginger wigs and glasses. I was with a hardcore Beasties fan and we chose our seats in the front row (this is pertinent so pay attention). When the show starts for real, and the band rip off their disguises, we meet the three characters Michael Diamond aka Mike D (Simon Maeder), Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz (Daniel Foxsmith) and Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch (Adam El Hagar), plus Tope Mikun. Mikun plays many other characters in their career: he’s a DJ, he is several different producers (including Rick Rubin and some of them in the form of puppets), he dances and does some silly accents, he has some hilarious lines, in fact Tope Mikun is dope in this show!
All three Beastie boys are amazing in their roles. You can feel that they really mean their performances and, if they are not fans themselves in real life (which I can’t believe is the case), then they definitely respect the lyrics and they deliver them just right. The audience is obviously made up of fans and the reaction shows that they appreciate the authenticity.
I enjoyed it the first time somebody was pulled out of the audience, to play original Beastie member Kate Schellenbach. In fact I laughed. I wasn’t sure if I was still laughing or if I was just embodying the phrase ‘mortified in a tanktop’ when my friend and I were pulled out of the audience moments later to be part of the reenactment of the Fight for the Right music video. I mean, we were encouraged to sing along and everything, and on the dancefloor in my own time would have been fine, but in front of everyone, you can forgeddaboutit! The only plus side was that I only faced the embarrassment once – my neighbour was invited up on stage again for the wedding scene, I think it was to Ad-Rock (apologies, my Beasties factual history is not intact). Thank god she’s a big fan and enjoyed marrying a Beastie Boy for just a minute – but it could have gone either way.
I didn’t know how they were going to deal with the death of MCA, and they didn’t mention the latest news that Adam Yauch Memorial Park has recently been vandalised with swastikas and pro-Trump slogans. But they touched on the tragic end to the band for just long enough before the triumphant final song.
Licensed to Ill is a madcap, colourful delight from start to finish. You get a real taste of the trademark Beastie Boy goofiness and humour. Despite being into hip hop, I was never that mad about the Beastie Boys, apart from a few tracks, but this show does not demand that you are a mega fan. It has a massive heart, it is very funny, and it has some wicked beats. Watching Licensed to Ill felt a bit like it must have felt watching the Beastie Boys themselves at the Riverside in Newcastle (which my friend actually did back in ’92). The great thing about the production is that the actors are talented musicians, MCs and actors. No wonder that this play/gig/comedy/musical has just been nominated for three different Offies (Best New Musical, Best Ensemble, Best Sound Designer). Please do go, if you are at all interested in these pioneering hip hop musicians. You will enjoy it and you might even be in it. Kick it!