Friday, 21 May 2010

Paul Merton's Impro Chums Assembly Hall Theatre Tunbridge Wells

Paul Merton's Impro Chums
Assembly Hall Theatre
Tunbridge Wells
21st May 2010

Paul Merton
Richard Vranch
Lee Simpson
Suki Webster
Mike McShane

Despite extremely mixed reviews this improvisation show continues to be hugely popular and Tunbridge Wells was no exception with a complete sell-out on the night.

You'll notice my emphasis on extremely above and I did that for a reason. Paul Merton started this touring show in 2004 and if you look on-line you'll see it's received reviews ranging from awful to amazing! I'm going to add to the wild variations by falling somewhere in the middle.

Most people will be familiar with Clive Anderson's hugely popular TV improvisation show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?". Week after week the programme was must-see viewing, it was hugely funny. Indeed on You Tube you will find that clips that are now many years old still gets thousands of views.

Anyway with ad-libbing master Paul Merton at the helm of this comedy ship and his shipmates being equally qualified well known improvisationists I had high hopes of a good laugh.

Actually for the first half of the show that's what we got. The show follows basically the same type of routines that Whose Line Is It Anyway followed. All of these rely on audience suggestions and you are therefore guaranteed a different show in every venue.

However the input from the audience is done in a very different way in part 1 than in part 2.

In part one audience suggestions are verbal (i.e. yelled out). Because suggestions come from all directions of the auditorium the improvisationist can pick the suggestion that will work best for that particular scene.

This works and I really enjoyed this first half of the show. There was a good variety of used material and the scenes were varied and incredibly funny. All 5 artists proved in that hour or so that they are experts in the art of improvisation.

If only the same format of material selection had continued in part 2. But no. Instead in the interval a bucket and pieces of blank paper are left on the stage and the audience are asked to write down 3 or 4 words for subjects to be used in the following part of the show.

Bad, bad, move.

Paul Merton, Impro Chums
Yes people filled them in. But it was the same people filling them in and then filling them in again, and again and again and again. OK if you are a master of coming up with improvisation subjects. This audience sadly wasn't. The situation was not helped by the number of young girls who stood there writing absolute rubbish and "I (heart) Paul Merton" on as many pieces of paper as possible.

If rubbish goes into a bin that is what you'll get when you get to take it out again.

The show continued in an uninspiring manner as subjects like "Mother superior gets pregnant" (hardly original), "Invisible Man" (unsurprisingly they walked off stage), lots of suggestions involving dead animals and some that couldn't be read out as they weren't fit to be read out. At one point it seemed that selections were being made at a ratio of about 4/1 (4 rejected) and the one that was left was pathetic.

It really didn't work and I really just didn't find any great level of entertainment in this final part of the show.
A great shame given the material delivered early on.

If this is how the format works in every venue it could explain the widely ranging reviews. The way it stands this isn't a show that depends solely on the talent of the performers. It also requires an audience that can give a written suggestion more than a half second thought. It needs the knowledge that the sole subjects in the world are not sex, bottoms, dead animals, perverted behaviour and a lust for Paul Merton.

I think therefore that without the format of subject selection changing seeing this show is a huge gamble. You could be lucky and get great audience written input or you could, like us, end up with rubbish.

People in the front 3 or so rows had a further disappointment. The stage is so high at Tunbridge Wells that when the front section is at full height you can't actually see most of the stage. Apparently, until the stage manager sat in one of these seats tonight (she genuinely seemed shocked at the lack of visibility) nobody had ever mentioned it before? Yet so many people were complaining that seems really hard to believe. I've never before had a theatre where the front rows can actually give a restricted view. I was told that the front section could not be lowered as the performers would need to keep going up and down the drop of about 8". I hasten to add here that a few weeks earlier 78 year old Debbie Reynold's was negotiating the step without a problem and these artists are almost 1/2 her age! The management of the Assembly Hall really need to be aware of this viewing problem as tonight the first 3 rows saw a show where the performers apparently had no lower limbs!

3 and a half for Paul Merton's Impro Chums
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