Review: SOPHIE'S SURPRISE 29TH, Underbelly Boulevard

Underbelly Boulevard has its bona fide cabaret hit.

By: Apr. 18, 2024
Review: SOPHIE'S SURPRISE 29TH, Underbelly Boulevard
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

Review: SOPHIE'S SURPRISE 29TH, Underbelly Boulevard As any fan of this art form will tell you, the first rule of cabaret shows is: never sit in the front row. The second rule is: never tell cabaret virgins the first rule.

In the case of Three Legged Race Productions’ Sophie’s Surprise 29th, there’s even more reasons to be mindful of where to sit. As well as the traditional risk of getting picked for a dose of benign audience interaction, there are scorchingly hot flames, high-speed flying skates and even some full-frontal near-nudity to contend with.

Review: SOPHIE'S SURPRISE 29TH, Underbelly Boulevard
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

This isn’t Sophie’s Surprise 29th first outing but comes back to London refreshed. It debuted in the Cavendish Square Spiegeltent in 2022 before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe last year for a headline slot at Underbelly’s Circus Hub and returns to London at Underbelly Soho with Josie Jones and Dru Cripps joining the central quartet of aerialists Katharine Arnold and Cornelius Atkinson and acrobats Isis Clegg-Vinell and Nathan Redwood Price.

Unlike more established variety shows like La Clique, there is a concept here which sees a random audience member picked to play the birthday girl and the cast taking on stereotyped roles. Hidden under a dark wig, thick specs and a gawky demeanour which could only fool the near-sighted and hard of thinking, Arnold plays the Ugly Duckling with her eye on Cripps’ wide boy Wheeler Dealer. Dressed in pure Burberry, Clegg-Vinell (Top Bird) and Price (Ragamuffin) are one of circus’ most enduring duos and have seen five Prime Ministers come and go since they first performed together; thirteen years ago is a mighty long time in circus as well as politics. Jones plays the blonde-haired Party Host while Atkinson is the moody Goth Boy (pronouns: he/him/sad).

Review: SOPHIE'S SURPRISE 29TH, Underbelly Boulevard
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

Even if your eyes say otherwise, there’s more to the best parties than just the people there. There’s an immersive vibe here with party games, party balloons and, of course, party bangers which don’t get much bigger than the blast-off tune “Mr Brightside”. You don’t need a live band with music like this, especially when it accompanies high-flying displays of such quality. Atkinson has the brain and the brawn to execute precise poises while hanging mid-air on straps while Arnold is simply superb with both rope and hoop to show why she is still at the very top of her game. 

Down on the ground, the skating routine from Clegg-Vinell and Price is no less thrilling. Rather than rely just on the tried-and-trusted techniques used by the likes of the world-famous Skating Willers dynasty, they use their acrobatic savvy and skills to flip the script and bring in unusual props like a bright blue bottle of WKD. Jones’ two solo spots are equally memorable. A wonderful display of hair hanging assisted by a member of the audience is soundtracked by William Shatner’s supremely arch cover version of Pulp’s “Common People” before she returns to spin fire batons and create an overhead halo of pure flame (it’s a good thing my eyebrows needed a trim).

There is physical talent to spare throughout the 90 minutes but - as importantly - this is an incredibly well crafted show. There’s sexiness (and some humorous mock-sex) but also plenty of clever quips around the stereotypes; at one point, Price asks an audience member to explain the political and socioeconomic aspects of what they are seeing and later Arnold artfully snipes at the “Beautiful All Along” trope. Direction is spot-on with audience attention neatly moved away from the stage when a reset is required.

Review: SOPHIE'S SURPRISE 29TH, Underbelly Boulevard
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

Underbelly Soho opened its doors last October at the site of what was once the Boulevard Theatre and, like its predecessor, has so far hosted an eclectic bunch of international names. Club Kabarett was effectively La Clique in everything but name and leant heavily on the talents of ringmistress Bernie Dieter and star aerialist Bella Diosa. Imported from the US, Batsu! is not short on comedy improv antics and booze-fuelled silliness but once is more than enough. Touring artists like Cabaret and Netflix star Mason Alexander Park have also played here but this cabaret is its first bona fide hit. If they want to compete with other venues like The Box and Madame Jojo's (due to re-open this year according to Soho Estates), they will need more shows of this calibre.

One last point: there’s very little chance of this production winning a national industry award. That is a crying shame. As the post-pandemic West End decrepitates before our eyes thanks to a revolving diet of endless Shakespeare revivals, celebrity-led mediocrity, cyborg shows that are more machine than man, the never-ending conveyor belt of screen-to-stage musicals and an innate lack of commercial risk taking, spectacularly fun and smart cabaret shows like Sophie’s Surprise 29th provide concrete proof of what can be achieved when enough experience, creativity, technical skill and a wicked sense of fun are combined. 

Sophie’s Surprise 29th continues at Underbelly Soho until 28 June.

Photo credits: Craig Sugden


To post a comment, you must register and login.

Vote Sponsor