POP / Beaten with a rhythm stick: Stomp is the 'musician's idea of theatre', a wall of sound built with crashing percussion. Nick Curtis reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Stomp kicks off at Sadler's Wells this week with a sweeping entrance: co-creator Luke Cresswell ambles on pushing a broom. It's a classic bit of sketch business - the cleaner caught in the spotlight - but Cress well goes further. Six more sweepers enter and the comic cliche evolves into a complex aural and visual composition of brushstroke, bump, stamp and grunt, in an arabesque of booted feet and twirling kitchen utensils.

Cresswell, it seems, can turn anything - a plastic bag, a pedal-bin, a Zippo lighter, even the kitchen sink - into an instrument for his own personal rhythm method. He and his fellow heavy-booted Yes / No People have the stamina of gymnasts and the dangerous energy of muggers. The show has neither dialogue nor plot, but its 90 raucous, sweat- dripping minutes comprise a seamlessly drafted exploration of the frontiers of drumming and dance.

The sounds range from the bass thud of the vast plastic tub to the susurration of hands rubbed together, from the clash of the dustbin lid to the carefully pitched 'plop' of different gauges of rubberised tubing. Each dancer-drummer establishes a recognisable persona - the nerd, the psycho, the show-off - and there's a core of clever, Tati-esque humour. Tap-dancing takes on a new spin when performers have oildrums strapped to their feet. Cresswell provides a sand dance to shame Wilson, Keppel and Betty and memorably turns the weapons of the noisy auditor back on the audience, weaving a series of riffs from the performers coughing, sniggering and rustling newspapers. The ear-pounding, dustbin-battering finale builds to a massive, layered wall of sound.

''Stomp,' says Cresswell's collaborator and Yes / No co-founder Steve McNicholas, 'is theatre from a musician's point of view, drawing on different influences as a band does.' The pair formed the company in 1986 after success, in true showbiz fashion, spoiled their cult busking band Pookiesnackenburger. (Memories of an ill-fated Channel 4 series with the group brings a grimace to both men's faces.) They collaborated on various films, videos and soundtracks before deciding to expand the 10-minute, bin-bashing finale to Pookiesnackenburger's old set. Cress well wanted to link this early junk-percussion experiment to his later work in theatre and dance: 'Basically I'm a drummer, but I like jumping around a lot as well.'

An eclectic ensemble able to hold a rhythm while 'jumping around' was formed, including another ex-Pookie and a participant from one of Cresswell's large-scale outdoor shows, the Glasgow drum-fest Beat the Clyde. Only the seventh performer, Fiona, is dance- trained, and the show follows no formal drumming or dance style. There are echoes of African or Asian techniques and even of clog dancing in the boot-boy choreography, but Cresswell claims this is coincidence. 'There's no point in imitating Kodo or Burundi drumming, because those things are integral to specific cultures,' he says. 'I also knew I didn't want to do just tap dancing or flamenco: using boots and stamping your feet was a new way of getting a rhythm.'

Stomp has its own style and rules. Yes / No members introduced ideas for new instruments in rehearsals, with Cresswell as director and McNicholas as 'the outside eye, ensuring there's a dynamic flow to it and a time and place for humour and aggression'. An idea for using sticks with shakers attached was discarded, McNicholas says, because it 'transgressed the law somehow: the objects we use have to be the objects themselves; we can't adapt them'. It's McNicholas who designs the junkyard rig of metallic cast-offs that hangs over the stage, an extended trash- drumkit for Cresswell in a swinging harness.

The 1991 show was rough, ready and short - 'If we look at videotapes now it's laughable,' says McNicholas - and Stomp has since been toned and tuned up. Mute, pacy and plotless, it now travels well. Stomp toured to some acclaim in Australia, and a preview run in Udine, Italy, last year sold out, with audiences refusing to let the group leave the stage after Cresswell's clapping masterclass. After Sadler's Wells, Stomp puts the boot into the Big Apple with an off-Broadway run.

It's a vibrant, exhilarating experience for both performers and audience, this symphony of timpani, this bovver-boot ballet. 'If you're not sweating when you come off stage,' says Cresswell, deadpan, 'you're not working hard enough.' It falls to either him or McNicholas to give a (figurative) kick in the pants to anyone not pulling his or her weight, but this is rare. Even though Stomp's two-year history has involved long lay-offs, and even though Cresswell says 'anyone could do it', the same ensemble reforms for each new tour. On stage, the company may look like a bunch of psychos, but off they're a genial, comradely bunch. 'Basically, after this,' says Cresswell, sweeping an arm around the beaters, boxes, oildrums and ironmongery of the set, 'we're too knackered ever to argue.'

'Stomp' runs until 5 February at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (071-278 8916).

(Photograph omitted)