Powering the freewheeling lyrical wit, boundless energy and bellowing stage presence of band Jonny and the Baptists – their writing and guitar-playing rooted firmly in gleeful satire – is enough big-heartedness to probably send Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre into space, if someone could only figure out how to channel it. (And it does feel a bit like the bridge of the Enterprise if you look up.) But even if we don’t actually leave the Earth, their latest show is a real blast.
Oh, and, besides, it’d also have to be an eco-friendly trip. Because, having failed to prevent the success of UKIP or a Tory win at the general election with their last couple of shows, Jonny Donahoe and Paddy Gervers are comedian-musician-performers on a mission: to save the planet. And, like the confused mix of Captain Planet and Bible stories Donahoe recalls from his childhood, it’s going to take teamwork.
Mixed into this show are a few old favourites, but they’re doing something new here. Sure, seething beneath the pair’s self-deprecating buffoonery, there’s genuine anger about our smugly assured new government’s sacrificing of the young and the poor on the altar of big business. And ‘Trying to Be More Like You Guys’ is a rebuke wrapped in an embrace, which takes just as many pot-shots at the Baptists.
But a newer note, one that bridges past and present and breathes new life into the hilarious ‘Do It In the Library’, is a different sense of responsibility: collective action tethered to a fear for the environmentally devastated world that Donahoe’s four-year-old niece is likely to grow up in. And a hilariously, unthinkingly blunt conversation he had with her about the world’s chances is what’s inspired The End is Nigh. It’s a bit like Katie Mitchell’s Ten Billion, but with laughs.
There’s a real sense of growing up here, sometimes amusingly reluctantly – ‘Ugly Baby’ is deliciously bad-taste – but also beautifully, in Donahoe’s gentle reprise of a song about the future he’d like to see for his niece. It’s a still moment that gives clarity to the manic rush of the rest of the show, which he and Gervers pepper with past reviews scoffing at what the Baptists could possibly change in the world with a few songs.
But making people think as they laugh – slipping in a challenge as we all sing along to ‘We’re all Going To Die’ – is their gift. As Donahoe and Gervers zoom around the stage, chucking on bad-guy capes and pretending to be Matthew Hancock, the Conservative minister for climate change, it’s the kind of pointed silliness that brings an audience together. You can feel your barriers dropping with every smile. It’s a properly communal experience.
And The End is Nigh also sees a maturing of the Baptists performance-wise. Under Will Young’s direction, the increasingly prominent theatricality of their past few shows squarely takes centre stage. Beginning with Gervers and his ridiculously fairy-tale cascade of golden hair playing Donahoe’s brilliantly precocious niece, to the pair’s pact to save the world – from saving energy by weeing in the shower to kidnapping Matthew Hancock – there’s a narrative.
It comes together with the infectious energy of two big kids telling a story using the Roundabout as their playroom. Some elements mesh better than others, and the material is strong enough that it would easily support less meta-theatrical winking at the audience as the pair slip into character. (Ironically, the self-conscious ‘staginess’ sometimes slows things down.) But what’s really exciting about this development is the terrain it opens up for the Baptists ahead.
If their last show, The Satiric Verses, felt like a glorious (if bittersweet) conclusion to one stage of their career so far, The End is Nigh feels like the start of something new and liberating for the creativity of their storytelling and how they choose to tackle the issues of the day. It’s a hugely entertaining hour, full of social conscience-tickling wit and surreal sharpness. Donahoe’s niece couldn’t have a better pair of role-models than these guitar-playing comedy heroes.