United Kingdom Various Composers, STUMP!: The Bo Diddlers, The Place, London, 3.10.2014 (J.O’D)
Choreographed & Performed by Stephen Berkeley-White, Gareth Charlton, Phil Hill, Dominic North, Thomas Ward, Ewan Wardrop
Music: Fiddle, Rosie Butler-Hall; Accordion/Hurdy Gurdy, Danny Pedler
‘It’s a contemporary take on morris dancing,’ a man in the row behind me explained to the person he was with before the start. Some of the dancers, he went on to say, had worked with Matthew Bourne (the New Adventures company and Swan Lake).
‘Contemporary’, it turned out, meant ‘tongue in cheek’. Most of the dancing men were dressed in what looked like traditional morris dancing clothes: white shirts and trousers, bands of red in a criss-cross over the chest, waistcoats with strips of cloth hanging from the front, thick-soled boots or shoes, bells on leather straps tied around their calves. One of them, however, wore a skimpy pair of shorts instead of trousers. Their entrance was accompanied by a burst of rock concert conventions (flashing lights; pounding music; immediate whooping and clapping from Bo Diddlers fans in the audience). This was followed by a switch to accordion and fiddle, and the six men skipping and hopping and knocking sticks together in the air as if they really were on a village green in May. The tone, however, is immediately ironic. Morris dancing is the excuse for a series of song or dance ‘numbers’ joined together in a haphazard, though increasingly uneasy, way.
One man plays the blues harmonica. The one in shorts performs a ‘jazz dance’. ‘I hope you didn’t see anything you shouldn’t have,’ another of the dancers says to the audience afterwards. (The evening is peppered with innuendo about ‘big sticks’ etc., at which sections of the audience titter and guffaw.) The accordion player accompanies the fiddle player as she sings a melancholy song. In between all this, the men go back to ironic skipping and hopping in formation, waving two white handkerchiefs each. They do this well. In one of the most successful and complex ‘morris dancing’ sections (‘Mystick’) the sticks appear to take on lives of their own. A ‘Dead Arm Dance’ also shows the dancers at their wittily choreographed best. With their boots and their bells, with the red, black and white of their clothes, the men can’t help but impress. What you get a sense of most, though, is that The Place is not really the place for Stump!. It needs to be somewhere where there is a lot of beer, where the audience is walking around perhaps.
A ‘production number’ with the blonde-wigged dancers as the Midwich Cuckoos, a Busby Berkeley line up, a dancer crossing the stage on a skateboard – as it draws to a close the performance casts its net of references almost desperately wide. At the end, dancers and musicians leap about as if to convince themselves, as much as the audience, that it had been a success. I was left wondering if real morris dancing (which The Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois must have liked for a reason) might have some of the phallic power by which The Bo Diddlers seem so obsessed. It is something I will find out, in Devon, next spring.