Walking down into the belly of the Old Vic Studio we were greeted by a ramshackle room containing a collection of weird and wonderful objects. Among these was a selection of newspapers, chairs, a violin, sticks, a few boxes. These things would go some way to creating my entertainment for the next sixty minutes. I have to admit, I’ve never been enamoured with the idea of a completely improvised show. I want purpose, structure. Not necessarily a beginning, middle and end but, at least a sense that the performance is going somewhere. Thankfully my preconceptions were unfounded and I was treated to an hour of gorgeous, sparkling comedic vignettes.
Immediately the audience was put at ease by an open, informal and relaxed introduction by two of the performers; the wild haired, mad eyed Phelim McDermott and the unassuming, deceptively straight-looking Lee Simpson who explained the idea, the history and the purpose of the show. Each scene was instigated by an audience member randomly picking a word out of the thesaurus which became the foundation upon which each performer could add their own touches and flourishes. What I particularly enjoyed was watching a small seed slowly forming into a fully blossomed piece, the trust each member had in each other and the sparkle in their eyes when an idea came to fruition.
Each scene started slowly, almost like prize fighters feeling each other out and it took a while for an idea to catch hold. Once it did, the performers grasped it with both hands and tickled the hell out of it, raising laughs and bewitching the audience. To be honest, any group that can have me laughing at a load of scrunched up newspaper must be doing something right. Special mention here must go to the lighting crew whose delicate and intelligent treatment of space added soul and warmth to what is quite a sparse performance area.
Perhaps my favourite moment of the night came from their creation of a ‘thing.’ The chap who usually makes the ‘thing,’ we were informed, wasn’t there but they did the scene anyway. Using stage makeup and materials they fashioned a grotesque and beautiful gargoyle around the face of Phelim Mcdermott who brought the monster to life with emotion, feeling, humour and wit. It was this ability to create a classic comedy character within a matter of seconds which perhaps impressed me the most.
That’s not to say there weren’t faults. As is the case with improvisation, it can become very difficult to satisfactorily bring a scene to a conclusion. Easier with straight acting, perhaps, but with comedy a much more difficult proposition and one which can lead promising set-up to a bit of a damp squib. But then much of this show is about the journey, not necessarily a punch line or pay off. I came out humming their uplifting, closing musical number, however, and have still been unable to get it out of my head since. “He proclaims!” In fact, it’s testament to the troupe, that I could recite the whole show verbatim and still not spoil it for the next audience. A performance, then, of the moment. Great one-liners, wonderful performances and beautiful characters lost to the ether. I’ve seen my show, I thoroughly recommend getting your own. (Stuart Roberts)