It began on the streets, but Stomp is now a global phenomenon boasting five companies and 20 years of near-sold-out shows. Edmund Lee finds out what all the noise is about…
No doubt the inspirations for many percussionists (and a few dustbin men), Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell have led a long and distinguished career together – by banging on garbage cans.
The British directors and co-creators of Stomp – the enthusiastic blend of music, theatre, dance and comedy that’s been touring the world since the early 1990s – started out as buskers, playing the streets of their hometown of Brighton and the alternative cabaret venues in London in the 1980s. McNicholas was content as the singer, guitarist and violinist, while Cresswell, the drummer, didn’t want to get stuck at the back, and ended up strapping the drums on himself and dancing and playing around. A group of Burundi performers from Africa then came along and changed everything.
“We watched them on the street one day, and they were fantastic,” says McNicholas of that episode of epiphany. “At the end, they just picked up their drums and walked away. Luke said they looked like trashcan collectors – so that was it. That was the moment when we thought ‘great, let’s go and buy some dustbins’.”
After revising a piece to accommodate their new instruments, the two started building these little routines over the years, before debuting a half-hour version of their percussion show in 1990. Although McNicholas noted that they ‘lost a lot of money’ at the premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1991, the show, titled Stomp, did catch the eyes of foreign promoters and got its first booking at the 1992 Sydney Festival, and was followed by a hugely successful performance in Adelaide, Australia, which McNicholas considers one of the most important productions in the show’s entire history.
“It was a great feeling,” he recalls, while struggling to hide his excitement. “Something about the show really coalesced then, and the word of mouth was phenomenal. [Even] Bob Dylan came to see the show, standing at the back of the auditorium. People were clamouring for tickets. It was the first time we felt right; it was the first time we realised that we had something special on our hands. This is an eclectic show for people who love percussions. There’s a universal appeal to it.”
And the two haven’t looked back since. Their trademark performance has apparently been in such intense demand around the world that their recent break between August and the current Hong Kong production, which has just opened, was already the original company’s longest time-off in 17 years. Titled Stomp ’11, this latest version of the long-running spectacle is inspired by its larger-scale Las Vegas version, Stomp Out Loud – having shrunk down the roster of performers to eight people onstage at any one time and completely reworked its climatic dustbin routine.
As is always the case, new items – including paint cans, tractor tyres and giant guiros – have been added to Stomp’s now-signature roster of found objects, ranging from pipes and brooms to folding chairs – and a kitchen sink. “People used to write reviews of the show and say ‘they play everything but the kitchen sink’,” McNicholas says of the ridiculous instrument. “That kind of bothered me.” Meanwhile, another intended insult – that ‘Stomp is just one weird routine stretched way too long’ – is taken more lightly by the director. “If you make a show about rhythms and found objects, it could be perceived as being very dry. But we weren’t coming from an avant-garde [music] background; we both kind of feel that comedy’s in our bones.”
McNicholas is referring to his experience in a comedy troupe before Stomp, while adding that Cresswell ‘actually did some stand-up comedy himself’. Their sense of humour has probably – and thankfully – played a vital role in preventing Stomp from being just another chest-thumping percussion ensemble. Indeed, amid all the swinging heavy objects, the lucrative franchise has already proved its entertainment values and appeared as a short film, recorded countless TV appearances and made it all the way to the Oscar and Emmy stages.
By next spring, a 3D movie version of Stomp will likely also begin production – which is really no greater surprise than seeing a kitchen sink onstage. “Stomp is our day job,” says McNicholas of his ongoing collaborations with Cresswell, which have so far also included directing gigs for short films, commercials and 3D natural history movies. “Making IMAX movies is our evening job,” he adds. So, no: it probably wasn’t them when you heard that trash can clattering last night.
Stomp is at APA’s Lyric Theatre until Nov 6. Tickets: 3128 8288; www.hkticketing.com.