Pete Shenton and Tom Roden have been working together as New Art Club since 2001, giving us a wickedly funny take on contemporary dance. In this show they are aiming at a family audience. Hercules combines dance, comedy, storytelling, a healthy dose of slapstick (water pistols are involved) and hula hooping. It’s funny, full of verve and charm, put together with modest resources but plenty of imagination. The performers engage directly with the audience from the outset. Everyone from small kids to their grandparents seemed to have noisy fun and be ready to take part.
The production is shrewdly tailored for its intended audience. It canters along at a brisk pace. In ninety minutes, including an interval for that all-important ice cream, we get the stories of all twelve labours of the hero Hercules. If any one of them doesn’t particularly take your fancy or hold the attention, there’s another one along very quickly. Thoughtfully, the programme booklet includes not just a quick list of all the labours of Hercules but also Hercules, but also mythology-themed games and puzzles to keep everyone entertained at interval time.
Shenton and Roden are a great double act honed by years of working together. The premise for the show is that Tom Roden, the doleful straight man, wants to put on a solemn recital of the story of the labours of Hercules. This sounds like it could be rather like one of those Plays What Ernie Wise Wrote. His efforts to do so are constantly and successfully subverted by a conspiratorial Pete Shenton and other dancing performers.
New Art Club are joined by the musician Bob Karper and performers Avis Cockbill and Janine Fletcher (aka The Two Wrongies). These two portray the various beasts Hercules is confronted with. A misunderstanding sends one of them dressed in a wild boar costume charging round the stalls firing giant water pistols into the squealing audience. Maybe a lot of performers would like the chance to do the same.
The cast are supplemented by local community groups of young dancers for three numbers. These include some rather jolly dancing multiple heads of the Hydra monster which Shenton sets about bopping with a big plastic club which promptly collapses. The local groups also include a flock of man-eating birds in some agreeably silly costumes.
There is constant teasing banter between Shenton and Roden. The labour of the cleansing of the Augean stables involves both of them trading high-flown or more earthy descriptions of the differnt types of animal poo involved, much to the delight of the audience. So, they then say, how are we going to do that on stage? Shall it be freestyle disco or krumping? No, comes the answer, it’s folk dance. Cue another local group in folk costumes who might be trying to scrape something nasty off their shoes.
One of the labours is stealing the girdle of the Queen of the Amazons. Following the bonkers logic of the performance it seems quite proper that this should be illustrated by a skilled display of hula-hooping from Tiina Tuomisto, a circus performer.
Hercules is a cheery and entertaining piece, well thought out and delivered with great gusto. Audience participation was enthusiastic, with as many adults as children leaping up out of their seats to do the monster dance. It’s good to have quality family shows around that are quite distinct from the Nutcracker or other Christmas-themed works. The production has already toured extensively but there are further performances in Manchester in October. Just don’t sit in the front stalls if you don’t want to get wet.