Effortless, sartorial and magnetic. These are the things that spring to mind when one thinks of the Rat Pack. Unfortunately The Tap Pack are forced, ill-fitting and dull. Whilst there’s no doubt these five Australians are talented dancers, the rest of the production playing at The Peacock this May has little else to offer.
“feeling less like a theatrical production and more of a cheap dinner show.”
With a five piece band behind them and a bar-like set made up of moveable stair pieces, one might expect this to be an exciting showcase of tap alongside some of the great classics from Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Instead we get a gaudy, indulgent and disjointed mess of an evening. Almost every sequence is ended with the same freeze-frame (all five members of the group stood downstage in spotlights followed by a blackout). By the third time this happened, I was well and truly over it which only served to further my feeling that this entire performance was simply self-indulgent. Too often was the band excluded in favour of prerecorded music, especially for dance numbers, and when they were included prominently it was for vocal numbers (which I’ll come onto momentarily) that were entirely unnecessary and detracted from the headlining appeal of the dance form. As far as connective tissue to these musical numbers or dance sequences go, there is none. I’ve mentioned the lazily applied blackout after freeze-frame tactic but in the second act things only get more bland (if that’s possible). Almost every sketch is preceded by a member of the group telling the audience where they’re from in Australia/how happy they are to be in London/insert sob story/reminding us that they’re “just mates doing what they love”. As much as Tracy who has had four glasses of white in the interval might think that’s lovely, I couldn’t give a monkeys. If it worked even ever so slightly to connect each bit to one another then it might be passable but that would only be possible if any of the group had a morsel of genuine or believable charm and charisma. Things work best when the bits just follow each other without the backstory as they did a few times.
Talking of charisma, The Tap Pack are I’m sure a nice bunch but on stage they’re either creepy, full of forced fun or a combination of both. Opening with the line “Good evening ladies and good evening obstacles to the ladies” might have been harmless 20 years ago, in 2018 London it just felt lecherous. That feeling of greasy cringeworthiness didn’t disintegrate when Sean Mulligan, of the group, sat closely next to a clearly uncomfortable member of the audience before shoving the microphone in her face (wandering into the audience only ever comes across as desperate and I don’t have another way of framing it here). On the note of things that are also slightly dubious in terms of their appropriateness, I should mention the opening of act two where the group appear with fans and gowns to dance to the song The Coolest Chinese Folksong. It certainly feels a little backward and I’d go as far to say that perhaps other members of prospective audiences heralding from that region might feel more strongly.
From a production perspective there’s so much that needs making clear. It has the production value of a very upmarket Butlins show. Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting design is possibly one of the most tacky I’ve seen in recent times. The band are shrouded in darkness and there’s an overuse of colour which whilst clearly intended to liven things up just cheapens the whole affair. The design and Nigel Turner-Carroll’s direction of The Tap Pack gives it an uncomfortable corporate sheen.
Where that corporate feeling is at its height is during the vocal numbers. The two main singers Sean Mulligan and Ben Brown can clearly hold a tune, their musical theatre credits back that up, I’m not saying they are not satisfactory in that department. Still, they don’t have the vocal ability to reinvent the songs enough that they feel fresh or perform them in a way that’s reminiscent of their time. There’s a lot of X-Factor vocals: over singing with too many riffs and frills with off American twangs. They’re easily most self indulgent sections and when the music isn’t respected enough to make me care then there is a clear issue. Let’s take the rendition of Harold Arlen’s great classic saloon song One For My Baby (one of my Treasure Island Tunes by the way). Mulligan sits at the bar whilst another of the group fills the role of bartender. He then launches into a musical theatre inflected version of the song which held no emotion or tenderness. These are called standards for a reason; it’s called the great American song book for a reason, don’t cheapen it. If this show aims to reflect the Rat Pack then they could start by respecting the music. The vocal numbers ooze unoriginality (some moments clearly lifted from Robbie Williams’ Swing When You’re Winning album) and push the whole evening into feeling less like a theatrical production and more of a cheap dinner show.
“an uncomfortable corporate sheen”
Where The Tap Pack does succeed is in its tap focused moments without the poor comedy, awkward audience interaction and annoying vocals. Like I said, these five guys can really dance. When that’s the at the forefront, the production works well. The one time everything came together was in an entirely acapella section where vocals, rhythm and tap came together to create a cover of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. If the whole show was of that standard and construction then this would have been a far more well-received production.
Alas, The Tap Pack far from deliver the cool of their namesakes. Poor production design and theatrical construction alongside the disingenuous charisma of the group make for a show that I would steer well clear of.
Image: RGM Productions