You’ve Never Heard Anything Like This Before: BAC Beatbox Academy’s Exhilarating ‘Frankenstein’ Show at Battersea Arts Centre

25.3.18

BAC Beatbox Academy performing their song 'Hideous' as part of their show 'Frankenstein' at Battersea Arts Centre on March 22, 2018 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐– Andy’s review

At Battersea Arts Centre in south west London, an extraordinary performance is taking place over the next two weeks, which I urge you to go and see if you’re in London. The show is ‘Frankenstein’ (aka ‘Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster’), and it’s performed by the BAC Beatbox Academy, a collective of beatboxers, singers and rappers who have produced a genuinely unique and completely exhilarating show. As I suggest in the headline of this article, I can guarantee that you have never heard anything like it before.

Perhaps you think beatboxing is a little one-dimensional — men with big lungs making massive, meaty dance beats through a microphone. Impressive, but essentially a novelty, and not something you could spend much time listening to.

If that’s what you think, then ‘Frankenstein’ will blow away those preconceptions, as the BAC Beatbox Academy, which is marking its 10th anniversary this year, is expert at confounding expectations. The group first came to my attention back in 2015, when a friend suggested that my son Tyler, then 15, should audition to take part in it. Tyler had always been a sonically interested child, and had been impressed by seeing the beatboxer Shlomo at WOMAD, which eventually led to him coming up with his own beats and compositions, but it wasn’t until he went to the Beatbox Academy audition that, as he put it, he realised that he had found his people, that there were other people like him.

At the time, the Beatbox Academy included beatboxers in their late teens and early 20s, who had been with the academy since it began, and who were wonderfully supportive, and natural mentors to the younger members. In addition, the group also featured female vocalists and rappers, immediately giving the whole beatbox experience an added dimension, one that was readily apparent every time the academy performed at Battersea Arts Centre, as they introduced cover versions into their repertoire, and regular thrilled audiences with beatbox battles, when two individual beatboxers go head to head in a competition, and circle jams, spontaneous jam sessions, conducted by the academy’s director Conrad Murray, a singer, beatboxer and theatre practitioner who, last year, toured an acclaimed autobiographical solo show, ‘Denmarked.’

And so to ‘Frankenstein’, the Beatbox Academy’s coming of age. Supported with funding from Battersea Arts Centre, Arts Council England, the PRS for Music Foundation’s Open Fund and Youth Music, it took the promise of the academy’s inspiring mix of beatboxing, singing and rap and gave it time to develop via six core members — ABH (Alex Hackett), runner-up in the UK Beatbox Championships in 2016, and Native (Nate Forder-Staple), both providers of deep beats, angelic singers Amanita (Rochelle Francis) and Glitch (Nadine Rose Johnson), The Wiz-RD (Tyler Worthington), singing, rapping and providing beats and texture and playing Dr. Frankenstein, and, joining recently, Germane Marvel, rapping and playing the part of the Monster, and also providing beats.

Check out the promo video for the show via YouTube below:

As the core membership for the ‘Frankenstein’ cast settled in, and began to come up with their own compositions based around themes from Mary Shelley’s novel, which marks its 200th anniversary this year, the ever-supportive Murray was joined by David Cumming from the Roundhouse, who brought an intense work ethic to the show, secure in the knowledge that if you drive naturally talented people to push themselves as much as possible, the most extraordinary results can be achieved.

As the show developed, the cast drew on their own experiences to deliver a very modern urban take on ‘Frankenstein’, with some extraordinary pieces about insecurity, alienation and the dangerous power of social media. Scratch performances (works in progress) took place at BAC every few months from the end of 2016, with often sweeping changes evident each time as the cast and directors experimented with what worked best and added new material, and throughout 2017 other key players were brought on board.

I was at the first performance when sound engineer Rich Robinson worked his magic on the mikes, thrillingly bringing out the best in each performer’s voice, adding depth and reverb, clearly differentiating between the various voices, and when, for the first time, a choreographer (Natasha Harrison) helped the group move around the stage, a transformation made all the more effective through the work of lighting designer Sherry Coenen. Suddenly, the previous Beatbox Academy format — generally a line of performers, with undifferentiated mikes — was gloriously upgraded, to astonishing effect.

The final version of ‘Frankenstein’, which opened on Thursday evening, was a proud vindication of those who had faith in the academy, and the performers, directors and technicians who worked tirelessly to bring it to life.

It is a totally thrilling performance, sonically mixing up its components so effectively that, often, it has a sound that would make Massive Attack nervous, and emotionally it runs the gamut from ferociously dark to hilarious and irreverent. On that first evening, the crowd were spontaneously cheering and shouting out almost from the word go, and the effect was so stunning that The Stage gave it a thoroughly deserved five-star review. As reviewer Tom Wicker wrote, “the company pop and slide through funny, jittery jabs at our over-stimulated digital age, cruel and soulfully sad numbers about the bullying, endless pressure of having to look and act a certain way and gorgeously sung laments for lives forced off the tracks.” He concluded, “This is an old story made electrically alive. Let it take your breath away.”

It’s on for five more evenings at Battersea Arts Centre — Thursday March 29, Saturday March 31, Thursday April 5, Friday April 6 and Saturday April 7 — and then, I hope, it will be picked up by arts venues around the country. I hope they’re all paying attention, because it really isn’t every day that you hear something that genuinely hasn’t been done before, but that is what BAC Beatbox Academy’s ‘Frankenstein’ does so compellingly. Catch it while you can, and if you have any theatre connections, urge them to check it out, and get this crew of talented beatboxers, singers and rappers out on the road.

Note: BAC Beatbox Academy will be performing ’Frankenstein’ on October 24 in the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre, reopening after a complete rebuilding, following its destruction by fire in 2015. The performance is part of the BAC’s Phoenix Season, which also includes the UK Beatbox Championships on October 26-27.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a review of the exhilarating and totally unique show ‘Frankenstein’, by BAC Beatbox Academy, which opened on Thursday at Battersea Arts Centre and is running until April 7. It’s a modern take on Mary Shelley’s novel, which was published 200 years ago, featuring a mixture of beatboxing, singing and rap like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and with wonderful direction (by David Cumming and Conrad Murray), sound production, choreography and lighting, touching on themes of alienation, bullying and the dangerous power of social media. Yes, my son Tyler is one of the six performers, but I’m absolutely certain that I’d be blown away by this astonishing gig-theatre piece even if I knew nobody in the cast. The Stage gave it a 5-star review after its opening night, and I’m sure more rave reviews are to come – as well as, hopefully, bookings for it at arts centres and other venues across the country. Do check it out if you can!

  2. Jan (Cosmic Surfer) says...

    Andy!
    Wish I could be there for the show! Looks fascinatingly wonderful! PLEASE let me know if it ever gets taped and hook me up!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yeah, will do, Jan. They do have a tendency to film whole shows and make them available online, so I’ll keep an eye out.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    UPDATE April 1: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ A thoroughly deserved five-star review in the Observer for BAC Beatbox Academy’s ‘Frankenstein’, directed by Conrad Murray​ and David Cumming, and devised by the cast – “under 30-year-olds – ‘generation anonymous’ – who chose the story because they recognise what it is to be made into monsters. It shows the creature from within, and invites not compassion but identification.” Congratulations to the cast – ABH, Germane, Nate, Nadine, Rochelle and Tyler​ (who beatboxed on the video of our song ‘Grenfell’: https://youtu.be/BLehKWOhMyY).
    As Susannah Clapp states in her review, “Battersea Arts Centre’s Beatbox Academy, 10 years old this year, has made a tremendous show. Frankenstein is a rip-it-to-pieces-and-remake-it production that galvanises the heart of Mary Shelley’s exclamatory gothic with vocal percussion, rap and soaring song … In darkness punctured by a scatter of pendant bulbs, six performers set the stage ticking, thrumming, crooning, throbbing. Each of them has a solo moment: an exquisitely sung lament; a wordless explosion of clicks and hisses; an ingenious rap which brings together antihistamines and tight jeans.”
    And here’s how highly she rates the show: “I have seen several giant stage leaps at Battersea – from Jerry Springer: the Opera to Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death. Frankenstein is the centre’s latest tremendous creature.”
    I am so proud! Tickets are sold our for the last three shows (Apr 5-7), but it’s back for the reopening of the Grand Hall, which burned down in 2015, on October 24, and it will also be going on tour to arts centres and festivals (Latitude, for example). If you have any connections to theatre venues – and/or festivals – around the country, do urge them to book this show! It is, as I said in my own review, genuinely unlike anything you have ever heard before.
    Grand Hall booking here: https://www.bac.org.uk/content/44921/whats_on/whats_on/shows/frankenstein
    My review here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/03/25/youve-never-heard-anything-like-this-before-bac-beatbox-academys-exhilarating-frankenstein-show-at-battersea-arts-centre/

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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