In ‘Food of Love’, episode of Ben Elton’s Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow (2017), audiences were given a glimpse into how it might have looked had the playwright ever chosen to produce a musical. The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes takes that concept and spins it into a full-length show blending multiple genres, pleasant late-night smut and healthy slice of homoeroticism.
Thankfully for the audience, which seems to be comprised of Shakespeare fans, we are in safe hands. The show comprises a duo, Joe Leather and Guy Hughes, the latter of whom composes music for the brilliant outdoor troupe The Handlebards. He plays the Man from Stratford and injects each number with a wonderful sense of carefree abandon, whilst Leather offers a flirtatious counterpoint as the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
“An earnest and enjoyable way to spend an hour at the Fringe”
Many of the early songs are extremely Disneyesque and lack a great deal of raunch which begs the question as to why this show has not been placed earlier than a slot which ends close to midnight. Moreover, some of these early scenes begin to feel a little formulaic once the tried-and-tested piano/harmony formula has been exhausted.
However, once the duo stray from the safety of musical theatre, things start to get really interesting. Macbeth’s Witches transform into Destiny’s Child, featuring ‘Banquo with the good hair’. In a bid to explore the backstories for some lesser-known characters (Tim Crouch would be proud), Hughes delivers a funny and unexpected, psychologically twisted torch song from the perspective of the Bear in The Winter’s Tale, who exits in perhaps theatre’s most famous stage direction.
The show’s press describes them as ‘Flight of the Conchords with an Elizabethan makeover’. While I mostly found the duo to be less sardonic and more child-friendly than their Kiwi counterparts – perhaps more akin to Horrible Histories – the combination of childish innocence and dark comedy certainly recalled one of the Conchord’s darkest and most underrated songs: ‘Albi the Racist Dragon’.
The production’s undoubted highlight was its amalgamation of Shakespeare’s history plays into a single rap epic which begins by channelling the acclaimed hip hopera Hamilton and gradually descends into an anarchic display of Hughes’ and Leather’s skills as white boy MCs in a way that reminded me of both the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Adam Long and Mathew Bayton’s Charles II in Horrible Histories. There was a good deal of clever wordplay involved in this scene and I was pleased that, as the show progressed, even more of this contemporary updating of Shakespeare’s language was to be found scattered across the production.
Overall, The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes is an earnest and enjoyable way to spend an hour at the Fringe, albeit in a time slot which feels ill-suited to its pleasures. The show perhaps takes slightly too long to hit its stride but once it delves into how Shakespeare’s plays might sound filtered through contemporary genres, then the show becomes an absolute pleasure and it is hard not become bound up in the duo’s clear enthusiasm for their work.
The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes is running at Assembly Rooms – Front Room at 22:40 until 24th August.