Licensed to Ill, Camden People’s Theatre


Originally written for the Guardian.

Rolling Stone famously reviewed it with the headline “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece”. Simon Maeder and Adam El Hagar’s unofficial history of the band, which revels in the haphazard brilliance of these unlikely New York rappers, underlines both their idiocy and their intelligence. The show has all the anarchy and DIY spirit of a fanzine: it’s scrappy, colourful and bursting with unapologetic enthusiasm.

This telling of the Beastie Boys’ rise to fame has the same chaotic, hyperactive energy as the video of Fight for Your Right (which gets its own lo-fi stage re-creation). Licensed to Ill follows the band from wannabe punk rockers to hip-hop superstars, as Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz find their way to the top of the charts through a combination of talent, accident and arrogance.

Much like its troublemaking protagonists, Licensed to Ill never takes itself too seriously. Brainstorming names, the band reject one suggestion because “it’s not stupid enough”. A similar logic drives the show, which never accepts a simple staging solution if there’s a sillier one to be found. So there are sequences of physical comedy, relentless one-liners and an extended gag involving a puppet.

But it’s not all laughs. Lurking forever on the periphery of the Beastie Boys’ meteoric rise is the nagging discomfort of misogynistic lyrics and cultural appropriation.

Ultimately, Licensed to Ill is more celebration than critique. Having established such speed in the storytelling, there’s a loss of momentum in the final third, which begins to drag. But what never disappears is an evident love for these three “idiots” and the masterpieces they produced.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.