Photo by James White Noise

What drew us to watch How To Burn A Million Quid was not its synopsis (we couldn’t find it). Instead, it was its content warnings. We were curious to see how indicators ranging from ‘excessive or gratuitous violence’ to ‘animal abuse’, and even as far as ‘vomit’ (!!!), would fit in a 90-minute run. One man’s trigger is another man’s intrigue.

The play recounts a true story about British pop duo The KLF, a pair of nutcases who at their peak of fame burnt a million pounds in cash on a remote Scottish island. This was met with an overwhelmingly critical public response at the time, and is especially thought-provoking today in the midst of the ongoing cost of living crisis.

An extremely limited set (ie. the complete absence of one) led us to wonder if the crew also set fire to their own budget. Pembroke New Cellars is reminiscent of a primary school assembly hall, with the backstage almost being on stage. The nakedness of the production meant complete transparency for the audience over the sound changes and stage direction. This felt amateurish at times, but at other points felt authentic and reflected the duo’s hodgepodge, unprofessional approach to their own music.

However, it did not hinder the actors' ability to be believable (perhaps also helped by the fact that it was a true story). Barnaby Evans manifested Bill Drummond’s inner madman, still managing to be relatable and poignant with his skewed but well-intentioned takes on society. Jago Wainwright as Jimmy Cauty cut a more reserved figure, but complemented his erratic counterpart.

Oscar Matthews, as narrator Ken Campbell, brought intensity and let the other actors bounce off his infectious energy. Reyhannisa Haji impressively switched between a plethora of characters; as did Lara Estupinan Caceres, Isabel Burns, and Emilia Johnson. At times, the distinction between characters felt blurred, but this was almost inevitable with the four actors sharing a gargantuan 19 roles.

Much of the play explores how the KLF aim to detach themselves from the mainstream, all whilst relying on it for fame - not that they ever wanted it, anyway. Their misguided actions include a battle with the Illuminati, with Drummond and Cauty both being inspired by The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a series of novels concerning society’s supposed puppeteers. This was their gateway to considering art’s place in the world of commerce. The burning of the money, at the play’s climax, was billed (pun intended) as an act of art. The play asks whether the value of the art is overshadowed by the value of the money involved.


Mountain View

Review A New Brain review: energetic and exciting production is highly enjoyable

This play feels quite underground in the Cambridge scene - both literally and figuratively - but brings important themes up to the surface. The actors’ tenacity and ability, and the production’s creativity and workarounds, deserve a full house audience every night. We came for the content notes but stayed for the witty gags and endearing characterisations. If you are someone who can appreciate theatre beyond extravagant sets, costumes, or lighting, and quite simply want an entertaining and funny spectacle, this one is for you. And if you’re sensitive to vomit, Wainwright hardly even retches into a top hat.

How To Burn A Million Quid is playing at Pembroke New Cellars between 25-29 October