By Carmel Shortall
“Now I understand the DC multiverse!” Not words you will hear every day but on this occasion spoken by an audience member after the first night of Full Stage Splash, Sigil Club’s new show at the Etcetera Theatre.
Attempting to distil the history of the comic book into a one-hour stage show is a pretty ambitious project but Sigil Club have succeeded with great verve and admirable energy especially considering the build-up of heat in the Etcetera. They promised sketches, puppets, fights and seven-foot long diagrams and they have delivered.
The show starts with a textbook definition of the comic art form so we all know where we are before we are cast back to 1938 – “a dark time of depression”, recession and fat cats exploiting the masses – “yes, hard to imagine”. With hundreds of cartoonists out of work there was the opportunity to give birth (literally, on stage) to a new kind of hero. Possessing the DNA of lesser heroes such as Hercules, Zorro and even Popeye, the superhero’s new popularity is summed up thus by Daniel Farley playing a generic superhero throughout the show: “I am every little guy you have ever pushed around – here to push back.”
The show provides a lightning tour of the major developments, fashions, reinventions/re-imaginings and, not least, the historical context of the comic book. There are moments of brilliance including turning the 1954 Senate State Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and the publication of psychologist, Fredric Wertham’s, Seduction of the innocent into a puppet show whereby a glove puppet Fredric Wertham as a kind of Mr Punch wallops a succession of comic book characters over the head as too gay, too sexy, too violent or whatever.
The well-researched stream of information never seems relentless as it is broken up through various devices – apart from the puppet show there is Fantastic Four Family Fortunes with Stage Manager and Co-Producer Jackie O’Sullivan lurking offstage to make the famous “uh-uh” noises.
Totally engaging, Full Stage Splash strikes the right balance between information overload and downright silliness. The cast – Daniel Farley, Kate Quinn, Kris Wood and writer, director, performer Michael Eckett clearly enjoy themselves whether over-the-top fighting in the style of 90s comics or clomping up and down the stage as the bandiest-legged cowboy ever; their love of their subject matter is infectious.
If you think it’s a lot to squeeze into an hour, wait until the entire history of comic books is rattled through in a minute at the end of the show. And the amazing thing is – it still makes sense.
I spoke to Michael and Jackie after the show in the steamy back garden of the Oxford Arms. They were pleased with the reception of the show – there was a full house on the first night and only a few seats going spare on the second – and the fact that people with no interest in comics were still able to follow and enjoy the show while geeks could enjoy the extra layers of detail.
They enjoyed being part of last year’s Fringe so much, despite having a show cancelled because of the riots, that they had to come back and they’re hoping to take the show to the Manchester Fringe next year. Part of their “2-D aesthetic” is that – with a minimum of props – the show can be packed up and carried around in a couple of bags.
I asked how the show was developed – whether devised onstage or based on improvisation but Michael said that the need to research and balance information with humour meant that he pretty much had to write it all in advance and tweak it later – with input from the group, of course.
Finally, I asked about research and both recommend The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey and Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones for the early years in particular. Needless to say there is also a ton of stuff online.
There is so much packed into this hour that you owe it to yourself to go and see it if you have any interest – current, nostalgic, whatever – in comics so get on down to the Etcetera for the last night of Full Stage Splash tonight at 7.30pm. Tickets are £7.50.