In the Second World War, tickle torture was used by Nazi prison officers. Josef Kohout (1915-1994), writing under the pen name Heinz Heger, wrote Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel – in English, ‘The Men With the Pink Triangle’, published in 1972. Kohout was jailed for being homosexual. With reference to another inmate, he wrote: “The first game that the SS sergeant and his men played was to tickle their victim with goose feathers, on the soles of his feet, between his legs, in the armpits, and on other parts of his naked body. At first the prisoner forced himself to keep silent, while his eyes twitched in fear and torment from one SS man to the other. Then he could not restrain himself and finally he broke out in a high-pitched laughter that very soon turned into a cry of pain.”
This is not the basis for Tickle – The Musical (can you imagine?), which takes as its source material a different true story, told in the film documentary Tickled, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. Farrier is also the narrator of the movie, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016, and is a New Zealand-based reporter, who wanted to investigate online videos under the banner of ‘competitive endurance tickling’, usually involving photogenic young men performing the roles of tickler and ticklee. Tickle – The Musical dramatizes this activity after Davina Diamond (Amy Sutton), one of the executives of a media company run by Tina Tickle (Richard Watkins), chances on Chris (James McDowall) momentarily tickling Callum (Ben Brooker), and with the offer of substantial sums of money to have them filmed in a studio tickling one another, the boys think nothing of being rewarded handsomely for half a day’s ‘work’.
The blocking in the show could have been better, taking into account the audience is sat on three sides of the stage, and with the actors singing unamplified, this occasionally caused problems depending on one’s vantage point – the seating configuration meant someone was almost always singing upstage to one section of the audience or another. David Eaton does a sterling job on the keyboards as musical director, and the production itself rattles through seventeen musical numbers in a single act. Tina Tickle herself is something of an elusive figure for the participants, and when Chris is about to embark on a university course, Diamond bizarrely asserts that both Chris and Callum are owned by the tickle films company.
Chris and Callum’s reputations are smirched in ways that are too much of a spoiler to detail here: suffice to say, Tickle (whose ‘real’ name we don’t ever find out) and Diamond’s actions compel the boys to seek legal advice. The musical doesn’t give many details as to what laws were invoked, concentrating instead on the downfall of Tickle and her empire after a media exposure lays bare the ins and outs of what goes on behind the scenes. A running gag throughout the show makes it clear that, officially at least, there is nothing ‘gay’ about watching men not wearing very much at all rolling around on the floor because they are being tickled into a state of distress.
Indicative of how progressive contemporary times can be, a coming out is treated with warmth and immediate acceptance. A suitably hilarious bit of audience participation had me in stitches (without even having to actually do anything). Character development is good, with song lyrics more often than not advancing the narrative. Oh, and one more thing – book to sit in the front row at one’s own risk.
At King’s Head Theatre, Islington, until 26 October 2019.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.