MATILDA PILLONEL reviews ‘Licensed To Ill’ at Camden People’s Theatre.
This fast-paced, energetic production follows the career of the Hip Hop band the Beastie Boys from New York in the 80s to LA in the 90s, and finally to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Without an interval the live music sweeps you up; from the impressive rapping of Mike D (Simon Maeder), AdRock (Daniel Foxsmith) and MCA (Adam El Hagar) to the captivating music mixing from DJ Tope Mikun.
The audience enter the theatre to Ennio Morricone’s ‘Un Momento’. Known for its use in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it’s a choice which sets us up for a play that highlights the issue of racism in rap music, a problem that continues to dominate the industry today. The set transports us back to the late 80s with posters imitating those from the video ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’, and the boom-boxes on a pile of cassettes.
In a play that combines theatre with live music lighting and sound are key, and ‘Licensed To Ill’ more or less succeeds in creating an ‘in your face’ production, conveying the difference between the wild punks of the 80s and the “hard” gangsters of LA. The slow-motion scenes are comical; but, at a deeper level, they represent the immature outlook of the Beastie Boys themselves. The costumes take us from the classic Hip Hop look and VW bling of Mike D to to the familiar tracksuits of the 90s.
The audience cannot get away with sitting still with people called up on stage from the very beginning. They call upon their punk drummer Kate to get involved on stage, but she is quickly cast aside when Rick Rubin discovers the Boys. In fact, the absence of female members in the cast conveys the harsh misogyny of Hip Hop. The play re-enacts the music video of ‘Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ and multiple audience members are transformed into the awkward party-goers. Its success will to some extent depend on the audience’s willingness to have their party trashed and embarrassed, but MCA assure us at the beginning that we will ‘always have an awesome time with the Beastie Boys’.
Maeder, Foxsmith, and El Hagar manage to convey a sense of unity and determination to be three white boys from the Bronx producing rap. Mikun gives an impressive and versatile performance as their DJ (and in various other roles), notably bringing a satirical quality to the portrayal of Rick Rubin as a floating grey furry head. This in itself, along with AdRock’s ironic statement, ‘we’re not your puppets Rick’, provides an interesting interpretation that sheds light on the motivations and desires of producers in the music industry even today.
Each night the production is raising money for The Adam Yauch Foundation, set up after his death in 2012. Yauch became an active human rights campaigner, which is touched upon in the production during a ‘meeting’ with the Dalai Lama. Yet, the tone shifts when Yauch’s cancer is announced through a YouTube address. It is in this scene that we realise that behind the apologies for their immaturity in the 80s (such as ‘girls, girls, girls, do our laundry’), this youthfulness never left the Beastie Boys entirely, in spite of the quick-changing music scene forcing them to grow up.
Despite a couple of minor slips, this is a slick production which mimics the carefree nature of the Beastie Boys whilst also managing to confront serious issues that continue to affect America and the music industry today.
‘Licensed To Ill’ is showing at The Camden People’s Theatre until 12th December. For more information and tickets please go to https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/licensed-to-ill/