Licensed to Ill continues at Southwark Playhouse, London until 24 December.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
If you think you’ve seen every permutation of the musician biography musical, think again. Sunny Afternoon, Jersey Boys, Beautiful – you can get a roughly chronological story of an artist or band anywhere you look in the West End these days. But how many of them have a live DJ, pull audience members on stage to play the drums, or portray record company executives as a huge puppet head?
Such off the wall stylings really help elevate Licensed to Ill, Adam El Hagar and Simon Maeder’s play relating the story of the Beastie Boys, with a little bit of the history of hip hop thrown in.
Returning to London after a UK tour, the production has gained a graffiti-clad set since originating at the Camden People’s Theatre last year, but retains the sense of fun.
Together with Daniel Foxsmith, El Hagar and Maeder portray the Brooklyn-based threesome as a trio of likeable lads who find themselves forgoing their band’s original punk roots to explore the world of drum machines, sampling and rapping.
The humour and self deprecation audible in the Beastie Boys’ lyrics infuses the whole show, making this a threesome one wants to spend time with.
Pretty much everyone the Beasties meet in their rise and fall are played by Tope Mikun, who also doubles as the show’s DJ, whose particular highlight is simultaneously playing both Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the duo whose Def Jam Recordings released the group’s first album.
That Rubin is a huge furry puppet head fits the musical’s aesthetic in a weirdly appropriate manner – this is not a show which takes itself too seriously.
As the band tour with Madonna and then shift to Capitol Records to record their second album, the laughs keep coming.
Some of the band’s controversies during this period are glossed over, with the emphasis on painting the trio as somewhat naive overgrown children.
There is barely time to worry about which elements of the Beastie Boys’ story has been left out, as the relentless pace moves from comedy dialogue to near-perfect renditions of the band’s most popular numbers.
The short one-act piece draws to a close in a more sombre tone, re-creating Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch’s YouTube message to fans disclosing his cancer diagnosis, before swiftly moving to the opening of Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn as a tribute to the late performer.
An attempt to include a contemporary rap – mentioning both Brexit and Donald Trump – feels an odd addition, especially as it lacks the finesse either of the band’s works or of the play memorialising them. But a rousing encore of ‘Intergalactic’ leaves matters on a high.
When the album of Licensed to Ill was released, Rolling Stone magazine notoriously reviewed it with the headline ‘Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece’.
El Hagar, Maeder and Foxsmith are clearly no idiots, and to call their one-act show a masterpiece might be a stretch – but it captures the spirit and essence of a time in music history, and one can’t really hope for more.