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.
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.
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!