Learning to Swim in the Abyss (A Live Improv Death Show) ~ Omnibus Theatre, Clapham ~ 26.02.2018

Stella Duffy returns with a new solo show – improvised, of course – all about death. Well, that’s not true. It’s a show about death which casts the spotlight on those moments in life which make life, well… life.

Stella has had her own brushes with death, as she candidly reveals during her one hour – should I call it performance? Performance makes it sound like it was put on for show and not actually a woman standing in front of a group, telling truths – such wonderful and heartbreaking stories – about those moments in life which need to be treasured. Make no mistake this was truth and wisdom being served up and we were there every step of the way.

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Armed with a chair, some fairy lights and a few key words up on the wall, Stella relates stories of her encounters with cancer – the myriad of emotions, the really horrid times, the ridiculously funny times, the breathtakingly poignant times. As bleak as the theme might sound, rather than being about death, the show really does focus on the moments that make life worthwhile.

So descriptive is she of her journey – told in segments all out of order and set against general commentary of western storytelling traditions – that you can’t help but feel. Not feel what she feels – that would be impossible without having lived that experience. But feel. Feel feelings you have never felt before, and think thoughts you’d never thought before.

For those like me, who have not yet encountered cancer up close, she’s given us an insight of something we couldn’t previously come close to comprehending. Through sharing her experience she’s unlocked the possibility that we might in future engage in what I will clumsily term a “better way”. The show is wonderfully life-affirming, and if Stella’s ultimate aim was to inspire and create ripple effects then she achieved that.

Some would struggle with such a weighty backdrop to a show. Stella’s body of work on page and stage attests to her skills as an artist – she handles everything with a light touch. There is humour with every beat. Which is probably a healthy way to live life.

Stella is performing Learning to Swim in the Abyss (A Live Improv Death Show) at the Omnibus Theatre near Clapham Common until Wednesday 28th February.

(I hope I’ve done this show justice without treading all over the content. I genuinely feel everyone should spend time at this show. Such an honest look at life and important thoughts to consider.)

 

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My favourite Impro nights

I’ll start with a disclaimer that this is not an exhaustive list of all the London or UK impro groups and gigs out there – and it’s certainly not a proper review of those gigs. Simply that I wanted to record in my blog some of the fantastic regular nights that are out there and the venues to look at, as I find writing about impro comedy a bit trickier than talking about plays and bigger productions. Perhaps as every night is so different and there are fewer elements to pick out – for example staging is often just the comedians and a couple of chairs.

You’d think elements of writing about standup would be the same but I guess for many stand up comedians there are narrative arcs which give a reviewer something to hang an opinion piece on. Or you might comment on topic choices or delivery technique. All of these don’t quite work when talking about improvisation. And anyway, I’m not a proper reviewer so my opinion should be taken with a pinch of salt – I only write these little pieces to highlight what wonderful variety of live entertainment there is to see and hopefully encourage people to try something a bit new.

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Comedy Store Players ~ Comedy Store, London

Longest running impro group and regular gig (that I know of, I’ll gladly be corrected on this if this isn’t the case) – in their 33rd year together. A core group of six performers (Andy Smart, Josie Lawrence, Lee Simpson, Neil Mullarkey, Paul Merton and Richard Vranch) form the regular cast, who appear every Wednesday and Sunday joined by a rotation of guests from a list of phenomenally talented improvisers . If you know even the slightest thing about impro you will know who they are. The Comedy Store Players are the most consistently funny group of people I have ever had the pleasure to see onstage, and I have seen them more times than I care to count. Some guests include: Miles Jupp, Ruth Bratt, Steve Steen, Marcus Brigstocke, Suki Webster, Phelim McDermott, Pippa Evans and Cariad Lloyd among several others of equally high quality. I still consider this the best value night out in London with guaranteed laughs and they are my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to see a comedy gig in London. Take a look at their website for ticket and lineup news. For UK-wide appearances, you can catch many of the members performing at venues all over the country on various tours as part of Steve Frost’s Impro All-Stars or Paul Merton’s Impro Chums.

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical ~ Lyric Theatre, London + National Tour

Okay, so here’s where my assertion that because impro comedy is often just people on stage, a couple of chairs and off you go, you can’t review it like a full play rings false. Showstopper! is an improvised musical which makes you forget that you’re not seeing a full set design, rehearsed choreography and costumes and that it’s a guy with a piano and not a 30 piece orchestra in the pit. Their recent Olivier Award win is a testament to how it stands up to the more fully-designed shows in the West End. The aforementioned Ruth Bratt and Pippa Evans are part of the core cast of Showstopper!, which was co-founded by Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery. Whenever I’ve seen them perform, they’ve displayed a fantastic knowledge of the various stylings of the different West End and Broadway musicals, able to move effortlessly between Cats, Hamilton and Lion King. Such a talented bunch and very deserving of all successes. Check their website for London dates and their National Tour.

The Playground ~ The Miller (+ other locations)

A female-only space, often hosted by Hoopla Impro at The Miller, showcasing the best talent on the circuit and nurturing the next generation. Fronted by Breaking & Entering – AKA Maria Peters and Lauren Shearing, they create a first half as a combination of recent graduates from impro courses, giving them a supportive audience to take their first steps onstage. Maria and Lauren then take the rest of the first half with their double-act impro, which is always a lot of fun. Their second half welcomes guests from the world of impro – many names already mentioned in this piece but additionally I’ve been fortunate to see excellent performers like Katy Schutte, Briony Redman and Susan Harrison. Follow Breaking & Entering on Twitter for gig details.

Newsical ~ The Miller

A fun series of single-scene musical theatre pieces, created entirely from news headlines sourced by audience members. The cast perform in rotations and usually 5 or 6 performers will be at any given performance. I’ve seen a number of people onstage at Newsical gigs and have particularly enjoyed the work of Francesca Reid, James Le Lacheur, James Witt and Tai Campbell, having seen most of those in other shows aswell. I was lucky enough to catch the debut of the group at An Actor’s Nightmare / Newsical double bill at The Miller in summer 2017 and then once or twice since, but as of the start of 2018 they seem to have a regular fortnightly gig at The Miller which will really be worth a look in on. Keep up to date with their activities via their Twitter feed.

Impropera ~ Kings Place (+ other locations)

Impropera, the show devised as a mashup between ‘Impro’ and ‘Opera’, not – as Niall Ashdown helpfully explains – a mashup of ‘improper’ and ‘a’.

Some games have the air of familiarity about them, but with the added operatic or musical dimension. For example – the translation game is now no longer a speech delivered to a room with handy verbal subtitling going on, but is now a german operatic piece, conveyed with all the passion and vocal stylings of any opera. The film & theatre styles now becomes a list of various composers, playing upon a theme decided by the audience. So you might hear variations on Three Blind Mice in the style of Chopin, Philip Glass, Elton John and Vivaldi – yes, sometimes someone completely unexpected is called out. I mean, who would suggest Vivaldi?!

The first half plays out with various games – my favourite being the 4 piece Baroque Chorus, which showcases the phenomenal talents of all involved. The second half is a one-act opera with the audience working as the chorus. Oh yes, everyone gets to join in! Technically I have performed in several West End operatic productions, with my part in the chorus line in the opera involving a car wash scene being particularly well-received (I maintain “Scrub my hubs” is my favourite improvisation suggestion from an audience member. Full disclosure – it was my friend’s suggestion. And I hope he doesn’t read this as his ego doesn’t need the help).

The core cast don’t rotate so much but occasionally guest performers will step in. Niall Ashdown fills the role of host for the evening and is usually joined by David Pearl, Morag McLaren, Susan Bisatt and Louise Crane as singers, with pianist Anthony Ingle and woodwind maestro Peter Furniss adding the musical element which brings the show to life.

Impropera hold semi-regular gigs at Kings Place, but as of 2016 have added an exciting new concept called Muso – a version of their show hosted in various museums, where audiences are invited to find interesting artifacts for the cast to sing about. It’s a concept devised by David Pearl and I was lucky enough last year to see shows in the Grant Museum of Zoology and the British Museum, and to see these operatic scenes unfold around a Victorian science collection or the Egyptian exhibits really does transform the show. There are a few Muso gigs booked in for the first half of 2018 so check the Impropera website for more info.

Slattery Night Fever ~ London Improv Theatre

Like many others, my first taste of impro came in the form of hit 80s/90s television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The show helped establish several talented individuals in the collective consciousness of the British TV-viewing public – one of these was the inimitable Tony Slattery, who has recently returned to live impro with a Saturday night residency at the London Improv Theatre on Finchley Road.

If you like your impro rough and ready with a healthy dose of chaos, then pop along to Slattery Night Fever, a show hosted by husband-and-wife team Neil Cole and Lesley Ann Albiston. The regular team are completed by another married duo, jazz musician Sandra Mae Luykx and Alan Marriott, who as an improviser with a superb singing voice, has established himself as the lynchpin of the show. Every Saturday night sees a rotation in the impro games played and different guests joining in the fun, so keep an eye on the London Improv Theatre website for full details.

Glenda J Collective ~ Various Locations

A quality quartet of Cariad Lloyd, Josie Lawrence, Ruth Bratt and Pippa Evans perform semi-regular gigs usually in London but last year did appear at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Improvisation festival in Birmingham. I’ve seen all four performers appear in various shows separately over the years, but together they are simply wonderful.

Josie is a longstanding member of the Comedy Store Players, and the others have guested at the Comedy Store a number of times, but you can also catch Cariad Lloyd as part of Cariad and Paul (alongside Paul Foxcroft) or as part of Austentatious. Ruth Bratt and Pippa Evans both perform as part of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical but you can also see Ruth alongside Dylan Emery as Ghost Couple, and Pippa Evans often performs standup either as herself or her character Loretta Maine.

This show is a more broad, sketch-based show which are sometimes standalone and sometimes interlinked rather than a set of separate games. Generally speaking the audience will lay out suggestions at the start and the gang will create and evolve scenes from those initial suggestions. It makes the night feel more like a natural progression than being constantly stop-start as some short-form impro shows can be.

Although you can catch the guys in various shows all year round, seeing them perform together is rarer. Currently booking is a one night only appearance at Hoopla Impro on 29th March, and a three night run at the Soho Theatre 12th-14th July.

Guest Speaker ~ The Miller / The Museum of Comedy

Devised by Suki Webster and featuring a rotation of excellent guests from the impro world, this show had a home for a while as part of Hoopla Impro comedy nights at The Miller in London Bridge, but June 2018 will see a new season of shows taking place at The Museum of Comedy. I’m looking forward to that as I’ve not yet visited that venue.

The first half features many of the short-form impro games casual viewers of improvised comedy shows will be aware of, but the second half features the four performers all taking on a solo talk on a subject matter given to them by the audience. Each talk will feature some sort of obstacle, whether it be needing to cover a range of accents, or speak in rhyme etc. It’s a nice gear shift to have slightly longer pieces and the solo talks add another dimension to the format. The evening will then usually round off with another short group game to bring everyone together again.

It’s a lot of fun and again just something with a little bit of a different element to what other shows are doing. Information and tickets for the June run see the Museum of Comedy website.

Venue Guide ~ Hoopla Impro @ The Miller

I’ve been visiting The Miller with increasing frequency over the past couple of years, having been first introduced to it with the first season of Suki Webster’s Guest Speaker show. Having since seen a number of fantastic shows and acts – An Actor’s Nightmare, Newsical, The Playground, Ghost Couple, Bareback Kings, Do Not Adjust Your Stage and Abandoman – and with the number of courses available for people to try out improv for themselves, The Miller is really carving out a home for impro and building a community. Their website contains info you need for both shows and courses available.

Venue Guide ~ London Improv Theatre

A fairly new venue on my radar – I first discovered its existence when the Glenda J Collective announced a gig there before Christmas, and as I booked my tickets, spotted Tony Slattery’s gig which had started up. I booked in for a show and immediately fell in love with the place. Candlelit cabaret tables, very friendly staff and a nice space to watch performances in. They host a mix of comedy, live music and mixed open spot evenings of poetry, music and chat. More details of their scheduled shows can be found here.

 

A couple of shows/venues I’ve heard lots of good things about but haven’t yet got around to seeing/visiting:

Austentatious – I’ve yet to see this improvised Austen show live but friends of mine have raved about it so I am trying to find a performance date I am available. It has a cast including Cariad Lloyd, Joseph Mopurgo, Rachel Parris and Charlotte Gittins, who I have seen in various other productions.

Crime Scene Improvisation – an improvised whodunnit – watch as the killer is revealed, to even the cast. This came to my attention recently when I saw Lee Apsey appear in Slattery Night Fever – after enjoying his performance I’ve looked at other projects he was involved with, this came up and sounds like an interesting and fun concept so I will be dropping in to one of their upcoming gigs.

Nursery Theatre – a bit like Hoopla Impro, the Nursery Theatre is making itself a dedicated space for impro shows, committed to running regular established nights and hosting jam sessions for beginners, really creating a community feel. It’s located between Liverpool St and Moorgate so do pay a visit if you are in the area.

And finally…

Do keep an eye out for the annual 50 hour London Improvathon. I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s event at Stockwell Playhouse and whilst I was able to dip in and out during the course of the weekend, several of the performers lasted the duration. Impressive stuff and well worth a visit next year!

 

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Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theate ~ 26.05.2017

They’re back! And so am I!

After last year’s outings to see this fantastically fun company pay their own very special tribute to the Bard were so enjoyable, I booked myself in for a visit as soon as I was able for this season’s offering.

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2017 sees Magnificent Bastard Productions return with Much Ado About Nothing – it feels like a bit of a step up from Midsummer Night’s Dream in terms of condensing the speeches and plot, but the cast are more than up to the task.

The obstacle to tonight’s performance was an incredibly giggly Stacey Norris as Beatrice. What we lost in the biting wit of one of Shakespeare’s strongest female roles, we gained in laughs aplenty as an increasingly handsy Norris stomped about stage, drink in hand, bringing a more EastEnder approach to West End theatre with the odd slap around the face and exclamations of “Oh my God!”

The beauty of the concept of this show is not in the drunk actor themselves, although they do provide comedic moments of their own, undoubtedy, but the real joy is watching the rest of the cast having to work around and improvise dialogue, staging and choreography. Special mention here has to go to Saul Marron, a returning cast member, who expertly threw in rhyming couplets to keep at least the spirit of Shakespeare’s writing alive, if not the precise content.

Of the cast I have previously seen perform, Beth-Louise Priestly was a very sporting and patient Hero, as her beloved cousin repeatedly tried to undress her during her speeches. Completing this fabulously funny line up was Victoria Fitz-Gerald, Jack Bence and James Murfitt – the latter of whom received a fair bit of attention when our drunk heroine professed she was “trying him out” for her cousin, Hero.

I’m delighted to see that Louise Lee and John Mitton are part of the rotating cast, as I was lucky enough to see both during the run of shows I saw last year. As every show is different, I’m very much looking forward to dropping in on the team a few times over the summer.

The company are performing Much Ado About Nothing at the Leicester Square until 16th September – see here for details of which days they are performing. Additionally there will be a couple of appearances on 18th June and 12th July at the Underbelly Festival of Romeo and Juliet, in preparation for an Edinburgh run from 2nd-28th August as part of the Festival Fringe. See here for the London ticket info, and here for details of the Edinburgh Festival.

 

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Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theatre ~ 10.05.2016 and 17.05.2016

 

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A cast of five recreate the key plot points from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 60 minutes – what could possibly go wrong? Oh, did I mention, one of the cast members is drunk? Yeah – that’s what could possibly go wrong.

After hearing great things about this show for years, I finally got the chance to see it live – and it was worth the wait! So much so, as soon as the show finished I booked myself in for a second visit.

With the character list reduced to the two couples – Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander – and Puck, we had time aplenty to see what damage drunk Hermia (and latterly – drunk Lysander) could do to proceedings. It seems plenty!

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Whilst I know the overall plotline, I’m not overly familiar with the in-depth dialogue of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as it turns out, this isn’t a problem! The show’s plot is clearly signposted by Puck, and by keeping to the core characters, it keeps the storyline here very simple and easy to follow, unlike the slurred speech of our dear Hermia, who, at times, seemed to forget she was even onstage.

A more cynical audience member might suggest this was simply acting, but if it was, it was acting of the highest order, as the other cast members struggled to restrain their giggles at times, and the erractic delivery of Shakespearean speech came across genuinely as someone who knew the text but was struggling to recall large segments due to the fogginess of an alcohol-riddled brain. It’s more likely the combination of being given free reign to improvise around the play, breaking the fourth wall, and the addition of alcohol to help loosen things up – but all the time it’s clear that these talented performers know the script inside out and are capable of still delivering key plot moments, and for the sober ones able to bend with such flexibility around the new portrayals of their drunken counterparts.

I enjoyed the performances by all the players across the two nights, but special mention has to go to our two drunks on their respective ‘drunk’ nights – Beth-Louise Priestly as Hermia and Saul Marron as Lysander. Despite the core cast being rotated, these two played the same roles on both occasions that I saw them perform, so it was fascinating to see the difference in their scenes – and to see the once-slightly-smug Saul having the tables turned when Beth-Louise was no longer the drunk one. All in good humour, of course, and it simply reiterates the point that this company are a tight-knit bunch with strong improvisation skills.

John Mitton was the third performer to play the same part both nights – as Demetrius. I think I’d really enjoy seeing him play the part drunk too, as he had a great energy about him. Interestingly he also played the part differently when dealing with his two drunken colleagues. Undoubtedly this would be related to the types of scenes they shared – as Demetrius’ scenes with Hermia were of a distinctly flirtacious nature, and his encounters with Lysander more aggressive, but still John’s interactions with both as they strayed from the scripted dialogue was different, a more soft and gentle guiding of Hermia, and a more playful encouraging of banana-throwing with Lysander (at one point the duel is reduced to one man with a sword and another with an inflatable crocodile, so this gives you an idea as to the barriers to serious Shakespearean acting he faced).

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea – often improvised performances can be divisive among audiences – but for those who enjoy seeing formats being played around with, and exploring different ways of portraying theatre in a fun way, this show is a great one to have a look at. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but the folks behind it are seriously good.

Sh!t-faced Shakespeare presenting Midsummer Night’s Dream is running at the Leicester Square Theatre until mid-June, before the team head over to the Udderbelly for a few dates in June and July performing The Merchant of Venice.

Edit 05.06.2016 – there is an extended run of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Leicester Square Theatre, now running on selected dates up until 27th August – this will run in rep with their Udderbelly dates.

 

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Animo ~ New Diorama Theatre ~ 04.11.15 and 06.11.15

The arrival of the Suspense Festival – an eleven-day showcase of puppetry – gave me the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite pieces of theatre – Animo, by Improbable.

I first fell in love with the improvised puppetry show back in 2010, when I saw it performed in Bristol as part of an Improvisation Festival called Bristol Jam. I loved it so much I altered my travel plans the next day so I could catch a second performance before I set off back up north to Manchester.

Describing improvisation is a problem for me, I can never write or speak the words which do justice to the energy found in an improvised performance. Certainly you can go to any show and marvel at the skills of the greatest actors and singers in the country, but watching a scene unfold for the very first time is an entirely different experience to seeing one which is rehearsed. Impro takes risks, any line delivered or action taken could make or break a scene. As with all live performance there is no editing, but with unscripted performance you don’t even have that second check during writing and rehearsals to reassure you. It’s all instinct, and the beautifully inventive creations that Improbable Theatre produce time and again are a showcase of their finely-tuned instincts and creative talents.

Scenes can start with a word, an object, a solitary note on a keyboard. Scenes might be entirely silent or could be sung-through. They can be set in mundane surroundings, or on top of a mountain in the Himalayas – with the help of the cast, the scenery grows around the improvised drama. Minutes can be spent not being entirely sure what is happening onstage… then something clicks and everything makes sense. It doesn’t matter the setting or the delivery, there is always heart. Whether it’s a newspaper animal, tentatively coming to life and exploring its surroundings, or whether it’s a dancing puppet made of a bikini top, this show has a real openness and honesty to it, and it’s incredibly easy to suspend disbelief and go with the flow when you are in such capable hands.

Animo is something which has to be seen to truly understand. The two nights I visited were a collaborative effort with Improbable Theatre and Blind Summit Theatre with additional guests. Improbable’s Lee Simpson hosted both evenings, introducing the concept of the show and the team involved. Sadly his fellow co-director Phelim McDermott was not available but the very talented Guy Dartnell appeared in his place – I had been fortunate to see Guy perform Animo and Lifegame with Improbable in Bristol, and also in Angela Clerkin’s The Bear when it came to Manchester in 2013.

Joining Lee and Guy was Artistic Director of Blind Summit, Mark Down – whose extensive experience in puppetry shone throughout both shows. Alex Murdoch and Sean Garratt were new faces to me, but both were enjoyable to watch. All were ably assisted by musical maestro Steve Edis, who I have had the pleasure of seeing perform countless times. It’s a given that I will see further works by Improbable, as I have been enjoying their work for many years, and now I have Blind Summit to add to that list ready for 2016.

 

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