November: 15th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 24th
December: 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd
January: 12th, 26th
Nov 20th, 2023
photo credit © THE NEW CURRENT
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I really dislike that moment just before a show is about to start and I discover there is unsigned seating. I get fidgety. I start to overthink where I am going to sit, and if I know the venue before hand, I might already have the “perfect seat” selected in my head. So now comes the rush to try and get in there before anyone else. With BATSU starting a little late, my anxiety wasn’t abating, but then, finally, doors opened.
Underbelly Boulevard is a Tardis. From the outside, the venue looks clean, smart, classy, and compact. A new, stylish venue that almost appears too crisp and new in the heart of Soho and has, since Underbelly took over the programming, become a vibrant and exciting venue. The space is, for some historical context, in the same building complex where the iconic Raymond Revue Bar was and the legendary, ill-fated gay club Madame JoJos, now a Marc Jacobs boutique. So the pedigree is there, and it’s clear after the first few Underbelly shows that the creative substance is there aswell.
BATSU, Japanese for punishment, having made their Edinburgh Fringe debut this year, continues their first with a debut London residency at Underbelly Boulevard. Though their format might not be the most original, what strikes you from the moment you walk into the space is an energy that is equally electric and exciting as it is slightly trepidation. There is a lot of movement and dancing, with the performers all over the place making as much use of the venue as they can. One of the dancers up on the balcony does the most energetic dance break of Asakura Miki’s “Holding Out for a Hero”, which brought the house down. But the show was still a good 10 minutes away from starting. BRIAN WALTERS, our host, informs the house that he needs more volunteers, so they’re going to try to get some more people signed up. Right there, my anxiety returned, my heart fluttering, and I slightly mumbled to myself, Why the hell did I sit in the second row? But there was no need to worry, I could, in fact, relax.
The lights go down, and the show is about to start.
Adding London to their already-long-running shows based in Chicago and New York seems like a no-brainer. This is a well-oiled, skilled, creative machine that gains a lot of its energy from their audiences, who are essential to a show like this, more so because, though it appears wildly ruleless, it’s not. On their website, they have a “super broad rule” about their show which is “Just Be Cool,” and that is a great way to sum up BATSU. Though a lot of pain is physically inflicted on the members there is something really positive, and inspiring about the BATSU that is quite striking. Essential to this style of show is the chemistry between the members, host, and their audiences. You want to see them having fun with one another on stage, and audiences also want to see their mistakes or how they make each another crack up. There seemed to be genuine camaraderie between the company as well as a little bit of a protective force around their lone British member.
Americans, I sometimes feel, don’t always get British humour or British audiences. We are most definitely not gentile, and the dirtier, ruder, or more vulgar something is, the better. The audience participation proved that, and this is where BATSU really raised their game. Having already gotten people who wanted to take part to sign a waiver, WALTERS calls out a pre-selected name, and the participant sets the bar incredibly high. Though I will be 100% transparent, I can't fully remember what the game was. All I can remember is that sushi was placed on the hairy belly of a BATSU member and plenty of soy sauce was added by SATO, who then proceeded to rub the sushi all over this now soy sauce-soaked body. What nobody expected was for the participant to actually eat one of the sushi rolls, her prize being a possibly warm bottle of beer. And after ROBINSON took his sushi roll, removing a pretty long hair from it before devouring it, I had to turn away.
Ensuring that there is a constant flow of energy and fun is BATSU host BRIAN WALTERS. Okay, I’ll have to admit the red jumpsuit, stylish, but might be just a smidge tight, that aside, WALTERS has a charisma and energy that is awe-inspiring to witness. Juggling multiple things on stage with an ease that is breathtaking and the more the show went on, the more animated the audience got, making his role even more essential, keeping order and the flow of the show becomes vital. From the moment WALTERS introduces himself, an half-Japanese/American who also acts as translator of sorts for NORIKO SATO, you can feel why the show has been such a success. The skill WALTERS displays is hard to master, and the more your audience drinks and wants to get involved, the more you have to stage manage the whole thing and not let it get out of hand. WALTERS also proved to be very vigilent and aware of his audience which is an endearing quality for a host. He proved this with a woman in the front row whose friend shouted out that it was her mates birthday. A little later on, WALTERS and the woman phew phew'd each other, which got her on the scoreboard—only 100 points—but was a very nice touch.
Chemistry really is the key to the success of BATSU, and means WALTERS and SATO’s relationship is key as there is a three-way dynamic set on stage, WALTERS-SATO, SATO-BATSU, and WALTERS-BATSU. There are a lot of fast moments between SATO and WALTERS with SATO clearly willing (wanting) to inflict more pain—harder pain—beyond the paintballs, giant rubber bands, sticks, and even, at one point, punching ROBINSON in the nuts. That is sort of what makes SATO great to watch; it felt genuine that they had no idea what SATO would do or how hard she would do it. If every one of these moments is fully planned and staged to the letter, then kudos to them for making it look and feel so organic.
"There is a skill in what WALTERS does that’s hard to master, and the more your audience drinks and wants to get involved, the more you have to stage manage the whole thing and not let it get out of hand."
But for me, the highlight of the show was WHIT BALDWIN’S ballet teacher. He came on with the energy of 20 elephants and was unrelenting from start to finish. He was rude, cruel, mean, and devilishly hilarious to everyone. The British “Al Borland” joke was lost on everyone, it seemed, except for me and the person sitting next to me who happened to be their executive producer, HEATHER SHIELDS, whom I would discover. And the C-word, which is quite at home in London, gets used, which was a jaw-dropping moment. BALDWIN was everything you wanted; he treated the BATSU members equally as the audience participants, even SATO got in on the action whacking the chap celebrating a much-belated birthday, in the stomach. This is what BATSU is, it's about coming together, having fun, pushing the envelope of decency just a smidge and making sure everyone has a great, memorable time.
And after 100 minutes there had to be a winner crowned and this evening it was former US Marine and all round legend Joe Tex.
BATSU is a show you’d see again, and no doubt people have already told friends they know who would love it that they need to go and see it. There was a positive vibe about the whole experience that was refreshing; it felt like it was something we all needed—some loud, messy fun that was equally respectful and the right type of wrong. It’s a genuine wild show that could be darker and more painful. I’ll admit I’d advocate giving SATO more freedom to do what she wants. I might sit on the balcony then, but I won't look away this time.