Pass The Hat – Theatre Review

BUILDING family trees is a pastime that many people enjoy – helped by popular TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are.

It’s something that actor Oliver Bennett pursued during lockdown as work dried up and he got by on universal credit. The result is a rather splendid play – Pass The Hat – as Bennett tries to find out who his great grandfather was.

Flitting between the past and the present, Bennett tries to make a connection between his great grandad and a busker of the name of Henry Hollis whose book he had just read.

Hollis was a character steeped in the east end of London  who grew up busking for a living – playing the spoons and tap dancing. Pubs, outside football grounds, and later on Leicester Square, were all locations for his busking to go on show. And mighty proud he was of it (god forbid if you referred to his occupation as begging).

Hollis tried his luck in the navy, but did a runner, only to be thrown into a military prison.  Along the way, he met the great and good – Mick Jagger, for example – as well as tax inspectors intent on pursuing him for taxes due.

Bennett’s performance is nothing short of sensational as he plays a convincing cockney, tap dancing like Fred Astaire and playing the spoons as if he were Artis The Spoonman. He’s a whirling dervish on stage, working up an almighty sweat – while seamlessly moving from past to present.  A tour de force.

Although the play’s home is London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, its  setting is far removed from conventional West End theatre.

It is performed in the Grade II listed building which was previously a Welsh Presbyterian church and also once home to the rather famous Limelight Nightclub. Downstairs, a bar serves up a mix of delightful drinks (the negroni it made pre-performance was mind blowing).

Why Pass The Hat was performed there is because 136 Shaftesbury Avenue is now the venue of Stone Nest – an exciting arts organisation dedicated to showcasing the work of visionary artists.

Directed by Vladimir Shcherban (born in Ukraine) who together with Bennett runs Hunch Theatre, Pass The Hat is a fascinating piece of work. Based on the book Farewell Leicester Square by Hollis, the play confirms once again Hunch Theatre’s ability to come up with cutting edge and challenging productions.

It also highlights Bennett’s amazing acting talent which would not look out of place elsewhere on Shaftesbury Avenue where crowds pay extraordinary amounts of money to see some pretty formulaic theatre.

Finally, one lovely  touch.  In true busker style, the audience paid what they wanted for a ticket. Hollis would have liked that a lot.

Pass The Hat runs until April 8. https://www.stonenest.org/events/pass-the-hat

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