Review: Clap your cans say yeah

STOMP creator Steve McNicholas speaks to Quinton O’Reilly about a production filled with music, energy and random junk

STOMP is one of those creations that you’re definitely aware of but never knew. Inspiring a multitude of adverts, shows and other facades of popular culture, it harks back to a day of youthful improvisation where pots and pans became your own personal drum kit.

Mixing theatre, choreography and comedy along with common objects such as bin lids, tubs and water cooler bottles as makeshift instruments, the show’s uniqueness and spontaneity means that it has been going since 1991 and shows no sign of slowing down.

One of the main driving forces behind STOMP’s success is its creator Steve McNicholas. Along with his friend and co-creator, Luke Cresswell, he came up with the idea when busking in their hometown of Brighton. McNicholas chuckles when asked how the show was created, a question that often arises owing to the show’s premise. You would be forgiven for thinking his answer would be short and sweet, yet McNicholas details this tale with a certain fondness.

After both had busked in locations such as Derry, Paris and Amsterdam, Cresswell, who played the drums, began trying to make his role more central to their performances. To do so, he strapped a snare drum around his waist for mobility so he could be at the front when performing.

It was only through numerous moments of improvisation that this busking act began to utilise more common items such as bins; when the Edinburgh Fringe Festival came about, the idea of harnessing this creative streak gained momentum.

“[Before we went in Edinburgh], we just went to our local hardware store in Brighton and we bought a dozen dustbins,” recalls McNicholas. “We couldn’t rehearse anywhere in town because it was too noisy, so we pulled the bins up to the top of the hill and we worked out a routine and really that was the birth of what became STOMP.”

The show was reasonably successful, but McNicholas and Cresswell had only expected it to last for around a year. However, it was not until a tour around Australia happened that they quickly found the show appealed to a much broader audience and began enjoying its success.

Taking into consideration the nature of the show, the sounds and structure of the show play a huge part in shaping the performance. McNicholas mentions that he and Cresswell have certain criteria to decide what works and would benefit the show.

“There’s two things that drive each routine when we go through them,” explains McNicholas. “One is what’s the rhythm? Is it captivating? Is it interesting? And a STOMP rhythm can’t be a regular beat, it’s not like dance music or regular beats, it has to be interesting to follow a pattern, a journey in that sense they’re almost songlike structures but really more in a way classical structures in that they have to grow and build”

McNicholas swears he never categorises the show as dance, but instead sees it as “approaching movement from the standpoint of a drummer or a musician”. The logic behind this description is that the set pieces have “got to have some kind of visual strength to it; it’s got to have something that makes people want to move as well”.

But he’s keen to stress that this dynamism is designed only to complement the music and the music only: “The sounds and music is the most important thing,” he says. “Everything else is a layer on top of that. There’s comedy, visuals, but if the music’s not right, even if it’s very funny and people are acting out you can say ‘no, bring it back, bring it right down to the music’ because when the music works, the whole show works.”

The show usually consists of around twelve performers with eight on stage at any one time. Some routines can be so complex that it can take four or five months to properly learn them while another area of concern are the physical demands placed upon them: “It’s as hard as playing a game of football, the injuries the performers get are more like sports injuries than dance injuries. It’s very physical, so we can only have twelve performers with every company and we rotate, they rotate.”

McNicholas is appreciative of the success that STOMP has brought him and for the foreseeable future, wants to continue improving and perfecting the formula. Neither his nor Cresswell’s enthusiasm for it has waned with them updating it to keep the performance fresh.

“When we came to do STOMP together, we were really creating something that Luke and I felt we would like to see. If we were going to the Edinburgh festival, it would be really different and really special and we were making it for ourselves as we were putting it together.” When looking at how they got here, you can only imagine that they’ve become their own biggest fans.

STOMP will be showing at the Grand Canal Theatre from March 1-6.