In a Brighton Fringe special, three members of the rrramble core team braved the British summertime weather (read: torrential rain & thunderstorms) to watch feminist theatre collective Clap Back Club’s latest comedy cabaret, Retrain Reduce Recycle. What did they make of it? Read on to find out… (content warning: may contain noughties bangers, Boris and boobs.)
There are lots of things stacking up against Clap Back Club in the run up to their final performance of their show, Retrain, Reduce, Recycle, at Brighton Fringe. It is raining. It is Sunday night. It is 9.30pm (a full two hours later than I had initially thought the show started, due to my inability to read a twenty four hour clock). Usually all of this would be enough to make me thoroughly unexcited to be heading out of my front door, but hey: this is the Fringe! The one time of the year when heading to a show at 9.30pm on a Sunday night in the rain is just… what you do.
I enter the tent – Brighton Spiegeltent’s smaller cousin, the Spiegeltent Bosco (a ‘wooden Dutch circus tent built around 1910 that comes from Amsterdam’ according to trusty google) and make a preliminary scan of the audience. A classic Fringe crowd sits before me: lots of mullets, tote bags and slightly soggy pints, as well as one singular older couple. As I scan the tightly packed tent, I note with interest – and some guilt – the pair’s choice to persist in the wearing of masks.
Before I even have time to wonder about the practicalities of whether they’d remove their masks to drink their pints, the show begins and my attention is stolen wholeheartedly. A rendition of a Christina Aguilera classic hit based on the government’s ‘Retrain Reskill Reboot’ campaign will do that to a person. (Think “so I won’t retrain in Cyber” sung to the tune of “thanks for making me a fighter”). What an opening. I’m not even thinking about how I wish I’d got there early enough to get myself a pint too.
I’ll level with you, this show was absolutely a bit of me. And if I know Abbie and Alex even a fraction of the amount I think I do, it was probably a bit of them too. What you’re currently reading is likely to be a love-in bordering on sickly levels of praise. I love rrramble because we offer diversity of opinion, and I’m not sure you’re going to find that here. But maybe that’s ok. Maybe after two years of Covid, and more than ten (?!) before that of Tory rule, we deserve a bit of a break from the negative.
So I won’t try to pick holes. It was glorious. The hour long show (described by CBC themselves as ‘music, comedy and cabaret’) centres around a ‘job conference’ held by Karen, our highly strung, highly unhinged and by the show’s end quite literally high on cocaine, job coach/host. Karen gives members of the audience pieces of helpful advice, such as how to get a job (“you just haven’t compromised enough, love”) and how to get ahead in life (repeat after me: “I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK TO THE MANAGER!”). The character is so over the top, at first I found it all a little jarring. But then again, she’s also so clearly a spoof of the kinds of actual people currently found in our actual current government (think good old Lizz Truss’s famous cheese speech). When that’s your baseline, the only way to take the piss effectively is to go BIG.
The main jewel in the show’s crown though, are the songs. Woven between Karen’s conference key notes we are treated to the most hilarious, clever and genuinely excellently sung collection of reimagined nineties and noughties bops. A couple of my favourite include Entitled White Guys (think ‘turn around, bright eyes’’) and a spoof of the classic job centre scene from The Full Monty (but with more boobs). Each song is hilariously well put together, providing biting social commentary on unemployment, the state of the arts industry, sex work, UK politics, and more, all to a soundtrack off of Now That’s What I Call Music circa 2008. This truly is satire for the Love Of Huns era.
Before I get into the review, I do sadly have to say that a very specific kind of chill goes through me at the words ‘feminist theatre’. I tend to set my expectations somewhere around the floor at that point. As a nonbinary person, I never know whether there is going to be room made in the show for my existence, or if I’m about to see a TERF-y performance of a very limited view of womanhood that, at the very least, I’m not going to enjoy watching.
I was so pleasantly surprised by this one.
Reduce Retrain Recycle is an absolute tour de force. Packed full of rewritten iconic recognisable songs, the cast explore a whole host of difficulties of modern society and working life, from the royal family to workplace harassment. In comedy, it can often feel like the musical side is a little neglected, but damn these actors could siiiing. At the same time, difficult topics were carefully managed without being boring, and there were a couple of moments I felt so seen I honestly could have cried (I cry easily, but still.)
It’s rare for me to watch something and feel like I was the audience they had in mind when developing it, but here I did. In the best way, this was sometimes like the pinnacle of the witty banter you’d have with your friends about what matters most. And lines like “We work overtime that isn’t paid/but hey they’ve got a float on the pride parade” just… got me.
Even the awful corporate antagonist, while obviously reduced to stereotype for comedic value in places, has a surprising depth and redemption arc. There were a few times where I felt the show linger on her a little too long, as she was far from the highlight, but the heights reached in-between meant this didn’t really phase me.
There are obvious ways in which Reduce Retrain Recycle was a bit rough around the edges. The mics weren’t on for a couple of quick-fire solo lines, jokes about Barnard Castle felt a little tired and overdone by others, and the presence of the rewritten comedic lyrics on the screen behind the actors made it obvious when they deviated from the script by even a word or two.
But this show, in a small tent, late on a Sunday night, made me feel incredibly proud of the arts, proud of those that work in it, and very glad I left the house in the rain on a Sunday night to see it. Which if you know me, my feelings about walking in the rain, and my usual bedtime, is nothing short of a miracle.
I need to be honest; I am ashamed of myself. I was so impressed by Retrain Reduce Recycle that I can’t stop myself writing one of those wanky review intros. Try as I might, I can’t let it go. So you’re going to have to read it…
Retrain Reduce Recycle is Fringe theatre at its punchiest. Armed with socially-conscious renditions of your favourite bangers, comically large props, glitter, and a powerhouse of a Karen in a fuchsia suit and professional bob, Clap Back Club are guaranteed to make you laugh out loud (likely at an obnoxious volume) with this edgy, engaged cabaret.
Well, thank god that’s over. But it’s true. RRR is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years, and considering the packed audience’s raucous applause and banshee-level whooping at every hint of a quiet moment (even though it was 9:30pm on a rainy Sunday), I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.
I was a bit nervous before heading into this show, because politico-comedies often miss the mark for me. They tend to fall in to one of two traps: either the comedy feels too obvious and shallow, or the politics are overly watered-down to make them palatable for an audience of lip-service-lefties (you know, the ones who put ‘labour’ with a red rose emoji in their tinder bio, but set their anthem to Ignition by R Kelly). I was so pleasantly proven wrong. Retrain Reduce Recycle has come out swinging with a guffaw-worthy cabaret for a generation of politically engaged creatives who are invested in taking action and binning the bullshit. And it lands.
Not only is this show fantastically conceptualised, written and directed (a job conference for creatives in the wake of retrain-in-cyber-gate? inspired); the cast are dripping with talent. The ensemble – each with their own solo(s) and moments in the limelight – have range. I swear I heard some vocal runs on par with Miss Aguilera herself. Karen – everyone’s favourite middle manager – is wildly and delightfully unhinged, clearly inspired by a cacophonous mix of every white female tory and every bob-donning Karen we’ve had to call our boss. If I had any scepticism about the role of ‘Karen’, it was quickly doused by seeing her head to the podium to introduce herself whilst doing the memed Theresa May dance. You know the one.
The only minor let-down was that in the final few minutes, when Karen has her glorious redemption, the energy dropped off a little compared to the rest of the show. The final song didn’t slap quite as hard as those prior, and it felt that we said our goodbyes a little abruptly. I didn’t quite realise it was time for the final applause. It’s a shame, but one that is easily overlooked and certainly not a hindrance to me leaving the Bosco tent feeling inspired & overjoyed to have come out on a rainy Sunday night.
Does this show run the risk of being insular? Yeah, maybe. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. Not every piece of art has to be relevant or appeal to everyone – trust me, I don’t think I’m the audience member most company’s have in mind when they’re making work – and if Retrain Reduce Recycle isn’t ‘for’ you, consider it your invitation to do the work and get on board, or get out of the way.
Head to Clap Back Club’s website to stay up to date with their latest projects. Although Retrain Reduce Recycle has now finished, you can still buy tickets for their show A Trans Fairytale at Brighton Fringe, playing on 19th and 20th May 2022 .