Licensed to Ill Beastie Boys

Licensed To Ill (Beastie Boys) | Theatre

Craig Austin was at the Southwark Playhouse in London to watch Licensed To Ill, a take on the cornerstones of the Beastie Boys back catalogue.  

So what’cha, what’cha, what’cha want?

The piss and vinegar frat-boy Beastie Boys of yore who erected giant hydraulic penises against polite society and showered oceans of Budweiser upon an artificially enraged tabloid nation? Or the greying politically motivated activists who decry contemporary American fascism from a swastika-splattered Brooklyn playground?

Licenced to Ill Beastie Boys
El Hagar, Foxsmith and Maedar as MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D in Licensed to Ill

What’cha get – in theatrical terms, at least – is a sizeable chunk of the former, and a somewhat condensed take on the latter; though an audience hand-out of the text of Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horowitz’s recent speech at a rally against hate at Brooklyn’s Adam Yauch Park is both pointed and prescient. Yet as Licensed To Ill is keen to make clear, the real-life Beasties were forced to confront, and ultimately jettison, a sizeable chunk of their MTV fan-base who at best ‘didn’t get it’, and at worst were simply assholes. An unfortunate baton of commercial baggage that Messrs’ Horowitz, Diamond and Yauch would later pass on to a certain Mr Cobain.

Though the legacy of the band’s creative output is increasingly as political as it is musical Licensed To Ill is nothing if not a rollickingly entertaining hoot of a production from its engagingly goofball outset. A four-man performance of considerable guts and guile it’s a relentlessly physical show that sucks in its rapidly captivated audience both metaphorically, and occasionally literally. Only ten minutes in, a somewhat bemused audience member is co-opted into a live band performance, a rattling garage punk run-through of ‘Egg Raid on Mojo’ in which she assumes the role of original Beasties’ drummer Kate Schellenbach. What the half dozen guys and gals who later get roped into acting as extras within the setting of a promo-shoot set-piece for the inimitable ‘(You’ve Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)’ make of it is anyone’s guess.

Tope Mikun as both Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons in Licensed to Ill Beastie Boys
Tope Mikun as both Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons in Licensed to Ill

Similarly, it would be intriguing to learn what Def Jam label founder Rick Rubin might make of his own unique characterisation; a shaggy disembodied Jim Henson puppet-head that barks out instructions and routinely avoids writing royalty cheques. In the expert hands of the excellent Tope Mikun (as Rubin, Russell Simmons, DJ Kool Herc, and a seemingly never-ending host of others) this is one of the show’s most enjoyable recurring tropes; the bearded wicked mastermind behind the – then almost unthinkable – notion of a white hip-hop group achieving huge commercial success within the framework of black street culture.

An über-DIY production it may be, but Licensed To Ill’s gleefully lo-fi stylings are more than made up for by its joyously hi-energy swagger. Its own take on the cornerstones of the Beasties’ back catalogue is razor-sharp in style and technically astute in its execution. The temporary Brooklyn accents of Adam El Hagar, Daniel Foxsmith and Simon Maeder may occasionally be strained as uncomfortably as a rush-hour subway journey on the A train but it’s hard to argue with the sheer exuberance of their relentless rhymin’ and stealin’.

I’d always suspected that the real-life members of Beastie Boys were having as much fun as it was possible to have within the pressurised confines of a touring commercial outfit. On this showing, I’m even more convinced that there are no four people currently having a greater time on the London stage than the four Adidas-clad guys currently bouncing around the graffiti-strewn floor of the Southwark Playhouse in a joyous blur of rhyme-riddled ill communication.

Ch-Ch-Check It Out.


Licensed To Ill continues to 24 December

Southwark Playhouse, London SE1

Craig Austin is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.