Tap Factory, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub

There is a style of theatrical performance that defies categorisation. Typified by the long-running West End show Stomp, such shows are not quite dance shows, not quite musical performances – perhaps ‘choreographed percussion’ might be the closest one comes. And that’s the category to which Tap Factory most closely aligns itself, using an industrial setting to combine the rhythmic beating of massed drums with the similarly percussive beat of tap dancing.

It also, one should be warned, contains a fair degree of clowning. Not the white-faced, prat-falling type of clowning, but a more European style of comedic mime that replaces genuine comedy with a performer (in this case, Konan Kouassi) constantly laughing at himself. It’s possibly the least auspicious start the show could hope for, immediately lowering expectations.

Or maybe that is a double bluff, for once the clowning stops and the drumming begins, the show transforms into a much more amenable one. The factory setting, all scaffolding, drumskins encased in oil drums and men in grubby overalls, helps frame the dance routines as placing tap dancing far away from its more traditional usage, as a retro callback to the glories of the Broadway musical. Tap in this world is a fast, precise, expressive dance that provides its own percussive accompaniment.

Key among the dancers is Jérémie Champagne, a former finalist on France’s version of So You Think You Can Dance. In the context of the show, he is portrayed as an over-enthusiastic employee who is looked down upon, if not outright bullied, by his work colleagues, but he gets the greatest opportunity to demonstrate his craft. And where Kouassi’s pre-show clowning was distractingly unfunny, Champagne’s routines are peppered throughout with a light comedic touch that brings out the best in the routines and in his fellow dancers. His ‘break time’ pas de deux with Lee Meadows, as the two perform a mock tap battle accompanied by wooden chairs and newspapers, is a delight – but Champagne excels in his larger solo pieces, most notably in the sand dance that brings the first act to a close.

The industrial, modern approach to tap does not mean that its heyday in the early 20th Century is ignored, however. The introduction of a radio sequence allows elements of nostalgia to creep in, the dancers accompanied by a rare melodic strain inspired by the big band sound of Glenn Miller. It’s a fun diversion, but Tap Factory is at its best when looking forward, not back. Elements of street dance, from the lithe, Capoiera-influenced fluidity of Andrea Catozzi to Kouassi’s infectiously joyous breakdancing (redeeming his earlier attempts at clowning) further enliven proceedings.

With such activity and freneticism on display, Olympic gymnast Maciej Labutin’s routines are, at first, a far more static endeavour that threaten to sap the show’s momentum. Initially suggesting that his repertoire consists solely of two moves – ‘handstand with shirt on’, and ‘handstand with shirt off’ – he slowly expands to routines that bring entertainment angles to the sporting gymnastic repertoire. A steel drum becomes an improvised pommel horse while his aerial work finally seems to bring out the performer in Labutin’s otherwise expressionless frame.

By the time director Vincent Pausanias’s attempt to involve the entire audience in a percussive routine midway through the second act, it feels like an unnecessary interruption to the onstage performance. But by then the audience is onside in a way that makes the tortuous pre-show warmup a distant memory. Tap Factory remains inferior to shows like Tap Dogs or Stomp which it clearly aims to emulate, but it stands up in its own right as a solid piece of entertainment.

Tap Factory is on tour – for dates and more information see tapfactory.com.