“Boys and girls, are you ready to party?” It’s Wednesday night at the Soho Theatre and the audience is being asked to imagine that they’re the six-year-old guests at a West London kid’s birthday. Celebrating her special day is Anastasia, the daughter of a Russian oligarch and his uninterested, younger (much younger) wife. Entertainment is being provided by an unlikely double act: posh seasoned pro Mr String (Ed MacArthur) and MC SPITTA, a rapper able to spin even the simplest nursery rhyme into slick grime bars. Things are changing in this cutthroat scene. Kids can now pick out their own performers from TikTok and a rivalry forms between the pair (at least from String’s perspective), as they fight to become “heads, shoulders, knees and toes above the rest”.
An hour-long cabaret-esque musical with a premise so ingenious, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before, String v SPITTA is nonetheless reliant on a hefty amount of participation from its audience. It turns out there’s no better way to get a crowd of adults to shout back at you than by treating them like children – especially after they’ve had a few drinks. The pair never forget their imagined audience and the magic tricks they do demonstrate genuine finesse – as confirmed by the friend sitting next to me, who is an actual kids’ party entertainer.
Like many industries, it turns out the world of party bags and birthday cake is a world divided. String knows the tricks of the kids’ party game, but the kids want SPITTA loose, natural improvisation (“Last time someone in my family improvised, it caused a recession,” String warns). We see the divide in the songs, where MacArthur performs show tunes on the piano, while Smith-Bynoe spits out bars at lightning speed. But the real magic comes when the genres meld, loop tracks used to mix together live instruments with beatboxing and singing. One beat out of sync could throw off the whole thing, but its success shows the technical prowess of these performers.
For all its fun and games, the east/west London divide between our heroes keeps the show politically sharp. This societal split is laid out in a rap battle between SPITTA and the “Waitrose prick”, both parts so densely packed with puns and pop culture references (“You’ll need more than magic, Radcliffe”) while also discussing class, poverty and being racially profiled among the backdrop of rich children and their bodyguards. It’s edgy stuff – when the crowd is encouraged to do their best animal impressions, MacArthur impersonates a pig by pretending to be a police officer talking about how difficult his job is, actually.
As for its joke-per-minute rate, String v SPITTA is unparalleled – one particular highlight is an R&B smooth jam serenade from SPITTA after which I am unable to look at a certain kids game in the same way again. Because that’s the genius of String v SPITTA – it weaves the central conceit into all aspects of the show, but never lets it feel forced. Other characters are played by sock puppets and alternative costumes consist of blue clown wigs and cartoonish glasses with a nose attached. When this show (inevitably) cleans up at the Edinburgh Fringe, be sure to grab a ticket – you’d be a clown not to.
‘String v SPITTA’ runs at Soho Theatre until 11 December