Review by Thomas Gregory
For men of a certain inclination, there is a beloved movie genre that is rarely seen on the big screen anymore. It stars Sly Stallone. Or Arnie. There are big muscles, big guns, plenty of homoeroticism, and very little character. It’s a one-man army against whatever terrible group of “foreigners” deserves it.
Sam Dugmore clearly adores these films. His frenetic, hilarious show, “Manbo” could not have been so well-written if it wasn’t for the kind of love that says, “I see all those flaws of yours but I want you to be a part of my life anyway.”
“Manbo” starts with our eponymous hero living the civilian life, trying to avoid any more fighting. Dragged back in when “The Colonel” is captured, he falls in love with a token woman, who dies. Manbo gets captured, breaks free, and saves the day. Throughout this theatrical spectacular he parachutes from a plane, fights a scary henchman, and reconnects with the ghost of his partner from a previous job.
The story is told with the help of the audience, some members being welcomed onto the stage to play the woman, the henchman and the ghost of Manbo’s partner. Other audiences play snipers, while one even used a leaf-blower to give that “true-to-life” wind effect when Manbo drops from the sky.
In the final act, everyone is involved, and the chaos is truly joyful.
The humour in “Manbo” may be mistaken as quite juvenile. Certainly, from the number of jokes that contain farts, you could shrug off the entire show as a teenage boy’s passion project. There is a lot of “blood”, a little swearing, and every death comes with the loosening of both bowel and bladder.
However, there is another level to this show; Dugmore’s close analysis of such films include examining the now-cliched techniques of slow motion and choreography of fight scenes, and discussing how masculine relationships are portrayed.
Yes, having the ability to laugh at fart jokes can ensure you enjoy the night, but you will walk out feeling far more fulfilled than expected.
There’s a subtle and powerful technique at play in Dugmore’s work that may not be evident until after the show is done. While the audience is presented with the muscle-bound Manbo, who struggles with emotional connections but is tough enough to save the day, Sam Dugmore himself is also on stage.
At one point, Manbo cries out in all earnest at the death of the only woman in the show. Dugmore breaks in to offer, “she has served her purpose”, to great laughter from the audience. What is important to recognise is that other performers, those perhaps less in love with the genre, would have simply given Manbo that line. But no, Manbo is too pure to think of “the contact” that way. He was genuinely in love, even if his writers didn’t give him a real character to fall in love with.
This appears multiple times throughout the show. Dugmore is all-in when playing Manbo but can seamlessly move in and out of character without ever losing his way.
Sam Dugmore is a consummate professional. While he calls on a lot from the audience, he has great care for the comfort of anyone who volunteers. Most importantly, audience engagement is voluntary, even after they have reached the stage. It’s clear that he is a performer you can trust to fight with a pool noodle, and who cares more that you die safely than die spectacularly.
I could not help but feel a little sorry for both the cast and crew in the venue. Such a wild show, with many props, action sequences and costume changes, should have the privilege of being on a much larger stage. Likewise, Dugmore should have been able to rely on the sound technician who, under the circumstances, did their best to keep up with the hundreds of cues. To Dugmore’s credit, these practical failures and restrictions barely slowed him down. It was not until the second half of the show that I was even sure the delayed sound effects were not on purpose. One benefit of sending up B grade movies might be that technical faults can easily be seen as part of the realism.
I am sure that later performances will not face the technical issues the opening night did. I’m just a little worried that means the audiences will miss out.
While requiring some appreciation of the juvenile, and most definitely best enjoyed by those of us who grew up on Commando and Cobra, don’t shrug off going to see this masterpiece just because the performer wears a muscle suit. Grab a seat as close to the action as possible, strap in, and be prepared for an incredible hour of mayhem and laughter. Manbo runs until the 24th of April, and should not be missed.