Theatre Critic and Journalist

Embedded Criticism: Crimplene Millionaire, Ovalhouse Theatre

Embedded Criticism: Crimplene Millionaire, Ovalhouse Theatre

Stuart Alexander – better known as Boogaloo Stu – is the sort of polymath that makes a Swiss Army Knife look like a one trick pony. His CV, should it actually exist, would include a 30-track Best Of album released exclusively in Japan, several performances at the Barbican Centre, a long-standing radio show for Brighton’s Juice 107.2 and a stint as a knitwear designer worn by Björk and Kylie Minogue. All-round entertainer doesn’t even come close.

Indeed, he prefers the term “showbiz multi-tasker” and in one summary biog describes himself as a “nightclub disc-jockey, bawdy game show host, multi-dimensional comic visionary, apparel designer, raconteur and radio present, cartoonist, illustrator and ballroom-dancing-singer-songwriter-musicmaker.” Last week, he added bingo-caller to that list. Bruce Forsyth, eat your fucking heart out.

Despite those Barbican outings – first in Duckie’s C’est Barbican!, then alongside Miss High Leg Kick in the comedy dance show School of Dance – theatregoers are unlikely to know Boogaloo Stu. To scenesters, however, his Candy Floss quiff has been a permanent fixture since the mid-90s, when he and Dynamite Sal set up their own Brighton club night, Dynamite Boogaloo, as a reaction to the ubiquity of house music in the town’s clubs.

Dynamite Boogaloo played popular indie and trashy – never cheesy – pop and gradually developed a riotous and playfully anarchic cabaret element. Imagine a boozy kids party teeming with double-entendres and sauciness. Popular games included Penny-up-the-Crack (clench a coin and release into a pint glass, basically) and Shit-Lips, a quiz with chocolate sauce-based forfeits. He still runs a regular club-night stall called Naughty Badge-Making, which uses an extensive collection of old-school top-shelf magazines to make, well, naughty badges. He claims it eventually inspired Simon Casson and Amy Lamé to found Duckie, and Stu became an integral part of the London alternative club scene.

“Over the years, there have been lots of different game shows,” he explains on my first visit to his rehearsal room, “For instance, we might play football with vegetables tied around your waist and you have to knock a swede across the floor. Anything I could think of that was childish and nonsensical.”

Crimplene Millionaire stems from of that vein of his work. Alexander set out to make a spoof game show based on the subcultural and political history of the 1970s, with audience members as contestants.

“It was the zenith of light entertainment. Everyone watched The Generation Game, Celebrity Squares and things like that. That sort of thing still exists in the form of X Factor, but they’re all about selfishness today. It’s not about going home with a toaster or a fondue set or something ridiculous anymore. Even in those days, the prizes weren’t worth a lot of money; certainly not a million pound recording deal. I really miss that innocence.”

Despite this neat fit, it took a list of pros and cons for Alexander, 44, to opt for the 70s rather than the 80s. He’s fond of the aesthetic with its queasy colours (“I like brown and orange!”) and the aerodynamic curves that brought the space race into the living rooms of Great Britain. But it’s also the decades underlying queerness that appeals. “In my Boogaloo Stu guise, I’ve collected 30 or 40 pairs of platform shoes over the years. I love the idea that these were men’s shoes. You’d never get a platform sole at Office.”

By the end of the decade, Alexander was 11, “that age where you realise you can do something for yourself and not follow the rest of the sheep.” In his hometown in Scotland, “everyone was a rocker.” Long, greasy hair and leathers were par for the course. Alexander followed suit until discovering the New Romantics at the tail end of the 70s and, belatedly, David Bowie and Marc Bolan. One morning, to the shock of his teachers, he arrived at school with a haircut to match his musical taste. “I decided I wasn’t going to pretend any more.”

Beyond that, however, his 70s memories are mostly of streakers and retro foodstuffs: Angel Delight, Space Dust and Creamola Foam, a baking soda-based flavour powder that turns water fizzy. “On childhood holidays, my dad would have a pint with a nice head on it and I’d have a glass of Raspberry-flavoured Creamola foam with a nice head on it.”

It seems that his interest in the 70s is largely about their residue; the things they left behind that would go on to inform his formative years. “For me, the 70s have the seeds of so many things that became amazing. Within one decade, you’ve got five really strong music and youth culture movements – disco, glam-rock, punk, new wave and the beginnings of new romanticism. It’s so crammed full of stuff that it’s a goldmine.

“The idea that you started off the decade in platform shoes and ended up with a safety pinned T-shit with two guys fucking and the slogan ‘Don’t fuck your mother’ on it. That’s six years later. It’s a massive shift.”

By the time Alexander arrives at Ovalhouse, fours days later than planned due to snowfall, he’s pretty much got all his 70s content sorted. When I walk into the rehearsal room, the board is laid out on the floor. It’s unpainted, but the categories – among them Moogie Wonderland, LSD Flashback, Boredom, Bin Strike – are all laid out. Alexander himself is sitting at a table, trying to sync up an operating keyboard that will trigger the accompanying television clips, all of which have already been edited in full and given Nicholas Parsons style voiceovers.

Research had started over Christmas, with Alexander listing anything that might be of interest. His governing principle was an attempt “to avoid the big players in the 70s, so there’s no Jonny Rotten and nothing about David Bowie. I wanted to look a bit deeper, to where those things might have started from and go for little characters and groups of people who you might not have realised had a bigger impact or were just different and interesting.”

So, for example, radical, San Francisco-based, gay liberation theatre troupe the Cockettes crop up as precedents for Bolan and Bowie. The group’s creative leader Hibiscus, often dragged up with a full beard, “was the catalyst for all those things that came later, like Ziggy Stardust, that shifted young men’s attitude to dressing up in the late 70s. There was no one else like them and they sparked something.” The same is true of punk, with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop Sex (albeit better known than Hibiscus) as the precursor. Likewise Linda Stirling, who in the 80s wore a raw chicken dress thirty years before Lady Gaga’s steak number, is represented by her menstrual jewellery.

All this knocks into politics. One round is called ‘Bin Strike’ and will involve Alexander dumping a heap of bin bags onto audience members. Another ‘Three Day Week’ means you miss two turns; ‘Power Cut’ misses one. The ‘Boredom’ square – encapsulating the emptiness of economic crisis – triggers Alexander to sit down and just stop the show for a minute. He hopes that it will show the political and economic climate that left the country open to Margaret Thatcher. The show will end with the decapitation of Orville the Duck – signifying the death of light entertainment – to find his bowels are full of loadsa money.

Essentially, the skeleton of the show is already in place before rehearsals begin. That might partly explains Alexander’s uncertainty about how to use the space provided: “When Faith [Ovalhouse’s producer] said I had two weeks in the rehearsal room, I was a bit like ‘What am I going to do with that?’”

Largely it becomes a process of learning how to negotiate the game in performance. There are two sides to that: character and control.

Alexander is creating a new character for Crimplene Millionaire, on the basis that Boogaloo Stu, for all his retro qualities, is rather more voguish; a creature of the 90s and 00s. “The aim is to get something more authentic, more of a game show host.” At this stage he’s got a name – Derek Daniels – and a look. Gone is Boogaloo Stu’s signature quiff, replaced by a lank grey comb-over with bushy sideburns. Below are two thickset exotic slugs for eyebrows, a perfectly groomed moustache and an extraordinary, garish, ‘pure’ crimplene suit plus clashing shirt. “He’s a cross between Bruce Forsyth and Ted Baxter” – a precursor to Ron Burgundy from the 70s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show – Alexander explains. To me, he looks like a Guess Who character.

“He’ll be like Boogaloo Stu’s dad. He’s older, so he won’t strut like Stu. He probably won’t be as gay – I’ve not decided yet. He’ll be more old school. There’s a lot of smut and swearing coming out of the TV and I quite like the idea that he’s not prepared for it, that he’s a bit taken aback and apologising, as if he wasn’t quite aware of the content of the show.

“But I want him to have a naughty edge as well, with moments when he’ll be possessed by naughtiness and then recover. ‘What am I doing?’ That sort of thing.”

Though Alexander had a fairly strong sense of Derek’s traits, he hadn’t yet found the vocal, physical and linguistic mannerisms to flesh them out. The voice comes first – or rather, it comes and goes. What’s meant to be a nasal Lancastrian drawl frequently drifts to Australia, Newcastle and Wales, regularly veering upwards into a heady squeak. It’s Alexander’s biggest worry throughout the process and, for all that he makes a running joke of his wavering accent in performance, the pitch-thing can be a problem. It has a habit of undercutting the comedy.

Over two weeks, largely through a process of just going for it and joking around with his friend Emma, Derek gets a set of catchphrases (“Let’s just see what’s on the TV”) and, increasingly, a history. There’s a wife, Linda Daniels, daughter, Daniela Daniels, a stuttering career and an hysterical mishap that led to castration. He also starts to insist – in the strongest possible terms – that, no, he’s not a paedophile.

In building a character, Alexander developed fragments towards a script: connecting segues and anecdotes. Yet, Crimplene Millionaire was never going to run by the book. That’s not Alexander’s style: “The idea of sticking to a script and rigidly following something from start to finish doesn’t appeal to me. When I toured with Duckie, I felt hemmed in by the structure of the show and didn’t really enjoy performing it.”

He’s keen to allow the show enough freedom to exist anew each night, reacting to the particular audience and, crucially, the roll of the dice, but recognises that this comes with its own problems. In the freeform setting of a club-night, the game can be played in full and arbitrarily. In theatre, however, it needs a definite duration and some dramaturgical order. As such, Alexander needs tactics to control the game.

For starters, then, no one can win per se. Each of the last six squares sends the player backwards, sometimes as far as the first square. Where squares are landed on more than once, players will simply re-roll. Those that aren’t landed on can be covered in the final quickfire round. However, he soon realises that Derek’s shambolic character allows him to play with arbitrary decisions and plonk a player wherever he wants. “You can completely send the rules down the loo,” Emma advises, “You’re in charge and it’s funny.” In the end, using a remote-controlled car that’s both unpredictable and ungainly proves key, disguising the controlling hand as the exact opposite, a complete lack of control.

That turns out to be Crimplene Millionaire’s primary quality in performance; a bubbling sense of chaos always threatening to boil over. Derek Daniels seems like a man chasing after his own game show. He forgets whose go it is, turns this way and that in search of the dice, loses his bearings and rises to a heady falsetto, before checking himself. (“Ooh, what am I like? I’m laughing and I’m crying.”) It means the whole thing achieves a very particular hilarity, thanks to its mix of the farcical with the risqué. The former means anything could go wrong; the latter, allows anything to happen. By the time Derek’s wobbling around with his trousers round his ankles with a tiny fake penis and a fluffy grey pubic area on display, we’re helpless.

However, so strong is that hilarity, it has a tendency to override all other content. With the dice already sending Alexander hopping back and forth through the years – “You’ll get a snippet of everything,” he told me early on, “but it might just be in a jumble.” – the sense of chronology and the rise of commercialism gets rather bulldozed. Nor is he helped by the slightly flattening, infomercial tone of the television.

It’s something Alexander’s aware of, though: “Derek was the last-minute thing, but he’s kind of taken over in a lot of ways. He’s the thing that people would remember about the show, as opposed to who the Cockettes were, you know?

“By the end of the week, I was trying to draw out the contrasts between the nostalgia and politics, the counterculture and Derek himself. Every roll of the dice should be about one of those three things.” Going forward, he’s also hoping to increase the live elements alongside the television clips and vary the format more in order to prevent it slipping into a lull as the audience begins to pre-empt the pattern.

Nonetheless, he’s rather fallen for Derek Daniels, ‘the man behind the moustache,’ as a character. “It’s been quite liberating being Derek instead of Boogaloo Stu,” Alexander tells me after the run’s over, “Stu’s great fun, but people know what to expect. There’s an aspect of Boogaloo Stu that’s forever young; he wants to be seen as 25. Whereas with this character, I’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum. I could be Derek Daniels until the day I die.”

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