Louise Mothersole and Becca Biscuit are having the time of their fucking lives and we’re all invited. Imperial epaulettes jangling on their shoulders as they pour beers for the audience and proffer cubes of cheese, screaming the words to Simply Red’s “Fairground” (a terrible, terrible song, good God), English flag facepaint glowing luminescent in the dark, their energy is infectious. I realise as we file into Summerhall’s Main Hall that this is where I saw Chris Thorpe’s Status last year. It’s weirdly fitting – Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats feels a bit like Status’s mutant, drunken little sister. It’s rum-bunctious, you might say. (Not my pun, Salome Wagaine’s).
Commissioned by their Maltese friend Charlie to create a piece of work for Valletta’s European City of Culture celebrations (“We love money. We need money,” they intone, deadpan), Sh!t Theatre absconded to Malta last year for a period of research (read: a free holiday.) More specifically, they relocated to The Pub, a white expat hub and the place where that actor from Gladiator Oliver Reed died after a massive drinking binge. So far, so irreverent.
Of course, because it’s Sh!t Theatre, there’s a lot of extremely funny stuff about tasteless Oliver Reed merch, about different drinking cultures, about the weird characters the duo find camped out at The Pub. You start to get the feeling that this could be the best party you’ve ever been to – but maybe that’s the free beer kicking in. Louisa and Becca down shots onstage, offer us rum and make us collectively toast to Oliver Reed (“One for the peasants!”), tell us statistics of Libyan refugees who drowned trying to get to Malta, crowdsurf surprisingly successfully despite the disorderliness of the audience, tell us about the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was murdered by a car bomb, teach us Maltese penis jokes, explain the difference between expats and immigrants, bring Becca’s dog Nala onstage, tell us about Leave campaigners purchasing Maltese passports to guarantee EU citizenship post-Brexit, and lead us in raucous drinking songs. Whew.
The horror and the humour are folded into each other expertly – there’s always been an undercurrent of murkiness to Sh!t Theatre’s work, though Drink Rum is, without a doubt, their darkest piece so far. In true Sh!t Theatre form, the droll video design ends up as the vital third character, consistently slyly undercutting and/or emphasising what’s being said onstage. They have an uncanny ability to suggest that what they’re doing is improvised and chaotic, and not, in fact, precisely structured (enormous credit must go to Adam Brace’s suction-tight dramaturgy and direction). They know exactly what they’re doing when they bring out Becca’s dog – inciting those inevitable audience “aww”s, when listing the number of refugees who die in lifeboats every day provokes only an awkward silence. The laughter bleeds into the awfulness, like when you stay out all night and then feel your hangover starting to creep in behind the eyes. Maybe if you keep drinking, you can shrug it off for a while, but it’s still going to hit, and when it does, it’s going to be twice as bad. And then it does hit, in an astonishing final twenty-minute torrent which feels akin to a panic attack, with intrusive thoughts/images flooding in in a relentlessly savage chokehold.
After the show, a friend who’d not enjoyed the show said the following: “I don’t want to be tipsy when I’m looking at people who are about to drown. I felt badly held as an audience member.”
It’s a valid point, but I didn’t feel duped, or badly held by Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats. The journey the audience go on is the same one Becca and Louise went on when they arrived in Valletta – starting at a place of raucous jollity, then being met with occasional flashes of atrocity which are swatted away until they come so thick and fast that they’re impossible to ignore. I didn’t feel like Sh!t Theatre were telling us off because, well, they’re as complicit and privileged as us. It’s expertly done stuff, an acutely constructed web that tangles itself around your feet and trips you up when you least expect it. It is a supremely confident and coldly furious piece of work, and it is a tough, tough watch, but it’s also their best show yet. Saħħa.
Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats is on at Summerhall until 25th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.