Bathhouse: The Musical! continues at the Above the Stag Theatre, London until 9 August.
The newest offering from London’s premiere LGBT theatre space is a camp musical comedy that exposes the ins and outs of the gay sauna, as viewed through the dewy eyes of a first-time visitor. A world away from the intense Orton that ran in the same space recently, it’s a steamy, saucy and at times blasphemous romp that’s sure to be a hit with the target audience.
Tim Evanicki and Esther Daack’s Bathhouse: the Musical! premiered in Florida back in 2006 and made its London debut on the fringe in 2009, when it appeared at the original Above the Stag venue in Victoria. This new production, at ATS’s current home in Vauxhall, has been updated by director Tim McArthur, who directed the original London show, and given a glitzy, Broadway make-over complete with fan dances, feathers and plenty of flesh.
The show opens with a handful of men from all walks of life descending on the bathhouse (‘Friendly Neighbourhood Bathhouse’) and explaining how it works (‘Bathhouse ABCs’). At the centre of the action is the naive Billy, who visits the bathhouse as part of his attempt to come to terms with his sexuality. His faltering steps are guided by a voice – lent ingeniously by Gyles Brandreth, whose plummy tones are reminiscent of the voices you’d hear in a 1970s government information film – and for the next hour and a half we’re treated to a frothy, camp American musical that never takes itself or its subject matter too seriously.
In the role of Billy is the fantastic Ryan Lynch, who pitches his character with just the right level of naivety and bright-eyed wonder. He’s also got a great voice and carries the lead role effortlessly. Pulled between the encouraging voice in his head and his continually unsuccessful attempts to cope with social media and Grindr (Clickin’ for Dick’), Lynch’s Billy represents all those in the audience – gay or straight – intrigued and bemused by the goings-on in these bathhouses, and he’s totally convincing as the newcomer.
Tim McArthur – surely the hairiest man on the London stage – is a delight as the fuzzy daddy bear of the sauna, and the excellent Joe Leather’s celebration of the hairier hunk is hilarious (‘Bear’). Matthew Harper, here representing the muscle queens, leads an energetic gym session (‘The Workout’) that pushes the costumes – ie, a towel – to their limits and gives plenty of opportunity for the flashing of flesh.
Indeed, with the entire cast clad only in the scantiest of flannels, there’s enough gratuitous towel-dropping and arse-baring to keep the rowdy audience content throughout. This comes to a head, so to speak, with a hymn to the male member (the unforgettable ‘Penises Are Like Snowflakes’). Completing the cast of six are Royce Ullah and the particularly good Alistair Frederick, all of whom come together for the fantastically blasphemous ‘Christmas At the Baths’ (complete with a Pythonesque virgin birth!)
The music, perhaps surprisingly for such a bubblegum – or bubblebath – show, is inventive, catchy and much more complex than I suspected it would be, parodying various musical styles and making occasional and effective use of four, five and six-voice harmonies. MD Chris Peake provides the piano accompaniment, with only the final reprise engaging the drum machine for a jive-bunny-style remix.
McArthur has added a few topical touches – a musical reference to The Book of Mormon, for example, and mention of the World Cup – and camped up the songs to full show-stopping glory with the help of Philip Aiden’s toothy choreography. Andrew Beckett’s set is also to be applauded for its simplicity, with judicious use of stage smoke to evoke the full steaminess of the setting and the subject matter.
There’s not a lot to the scant storyline, and unless you dig deep for subtext – men, stripped naked, baring their souls… nah, don’t bother – it’s a lighthearted, goofy piece of entertainment that will appeal directly to the target market and to anyone fancying a frivolous night out. Just not a show for your maiden aunt.