I first became aware of Police Cops: The Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival earlier this year. Out of the thousands of shows on offer, why did I choose this one in particular? What does it say about me that I saw an advertisement for a satirical musical about racist American cops in the eighties, and thought “perfect, where do I pay?” Regardless, Police Cops had my attention, and has kept it ever since.
The musical charts the meteoric rise of 1980s police rookie Jimmy Johnson (Zachary Hunt), after the death of his sister (who was also his adoptive father – don’t ask) motivates him to become the “best damn Police Cop ever.” He teams up with renegade ex-officer Harrison (Tom Roe) to take down Hernandez (Nathan Parkinson), a drug lord who has been running rings around law enforcement for years. Along the way, Jimmy gets help from his childhood crush Rosa (Melinda Orengo) and former Police Chief Gonzalez (Natassia Bustamante) in order to overcome his toughest opponent yet: his own prejudice against Mexicans… In the words of the opening song, “welcome to the U.S. eighties."
At the end of their Fringe show, the group announced a subsequent run at the Southwark Playhouse in Borough from 8 September to 14 October, and I already knew I had to see it again. To state it simply, Police Cops: The Musical is nothing less than a masterpiece. And yet, in some ways, it would be fair to say that I was nervous about a second viewing. The charm of Police Cops comes from its wonderful interplay of improvised and scripted comedy, a blend which often leaves you wondering whether a gag is the result of careful planning or spontaneous improvisation. Perhaps it would be better to never find out how much was organic, and how much was organised.
It was with this combination of hope and fear that I settled into my seat at the Southwark Playhouse on October 7th, two months after my first encounter with the show. The lights dimmed. The band swung into action. The actors appeared – and within minutes all of my worries had evaporated away.
Just as I had remembered, the original songs (written by Hunt, Parkinson, and Roe, with music by Ben Adams) were bitingly witty, showcasing the compact cast’s immense talent and infectious enthusiasm.
Zachary Hunt and Tom Roe managed to imbue rookie Jimmy and renegade Harrison’s relationship with genuine heart, which is no mean feat given how overplayed the ‘buddy cop duo’ has become. Nathan Parkinson served as an excellent foil to the leading duo, playing both the racist Police Chief Malloy and the drug lord Hernandez, whilst Natassia Bustamante demonstrated impressive range with her portrayal of both Jimmy’s sister-dad and disgraced former Police Chief Gonzalez.
A particular highlight for me was understudy Mychelle Lebrun, who was standing in for Melinda Orengo as Jimmy’s love interest Rosa. As the only member of the cast who I hadn’t seen at the Fringe show, I paid more attention to Lebrun’s performance than I might have otherwise – and she did not disappoint, seamlessly integrating with the original cast members.
As a show, Police Cops is able to breathe and evolve thanks to its cohesive scaffolding of songs and scripted physical comedy, fleshed out by improvisation that doesn’t disrupt the show’s pace and direction. Strangely, another way in which the show stays fresh is by constantly going wrong; rather than hiding flubbed lines or missing props, the actors lean into these unexpected moments perfectly, making them some of the funniest gags of the entire show (imagine a man, wearing only star-spangled boxers, chasing after a pickled egg that he had dropped as it bounces off into the audience).
If I had to find a fault with Police Cops, I would say that it suffers from the same affliction as any semi-improvised comedy show: when it comes to this style of humour, you don’t always stick the landing. On balance, though, I think it’s fair to say that Police Cops has far more hits than misses. Speaking of balance, however, it’s also worth noting that the show at Southwark Playhouse needs some fine-tuning in terms of audio levels, as the actors were often drowned out by the live band, a fault which cannot be attributed to the quality of the show itself.
All in all, this is a comedy that excels at exactly what it sets out to do: it has brilliantly funny original songs, a wonderful balance of heart and humour, and a stunningly passionate cast. There is very little else you could want from a show like this.
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.