Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Showstopper The Improvised Musical, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

The Improvised Musical,

Devonshire Park Theatre,

22-23 June 2011
show seen 22 June
Touring Cast
(names in bold are the actors I believe were in this show)

Ruth Bratt
Julie Clare
Dylan Emery
Pippa Evans*

Sean McCann
Adam Meggido
Philip Pellew

 Nigel Pilkington
Andrew Pugsley
Oliver Senton
Lucy Trodd
Sarah-Louise Young

Touring Musicians

Duncan Walsh-Atkins
Chris Ash
Rachel Perrin

*Pippa acted as the narrator in this musical.
She also collated and formulated the audience input.

Magic Tabletop - The story of Media, a story of love
and a young woman's desire to climb one last mountain.

Over the years there have been many TV and theatrical improvisational hit shows. The Channel 4 series Whose Line Is It Anyway, which ran for 10 years from 1988, was probably the most iconic. Clips from the series, which was presented by Clive Anderson, continue to receive a massive number of visitors on You Tube.

Theatre wise Paul Merton's Impro Chums and Jack Dee's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue have regularly attracted large audiences in recent years. Like the hit Channel 4 programme both shows get their laughs from short, entertaining scenes.

Showstopper, The Improvised Musical
is as it sounds. A genuine off-the-cuff creation of a full, unique, 90+ minute musical.

The setting is decided by the audience as are the musical and acting styles employed throughout the tale. Any characteristics specific to characters are also chosen in this random manner. The challenge for the cast is made even more difficult by the narrator coming up with additional tasks during the performance.

The only items the actors have to assist them are those that are seen on stage at the beginning of the performance. Essentially these consisted only of a selection of different coloured hats and jackets and a few props including some sticks, a couple of pieces of cloth , an umbrella and a couple of padded stools.

This type of show can also give rise to something quite unique when your friends ask what you are going to see at the theatre. You can honestly say "I don't know" because until the audience have decided the type of musical they want to see and its content not even the cast have any idea what is in store for you.

In fact every element of this show is made up on the fly. None of the cast know what their fellow actors will do or say next. Lyrics have to sound as though they were rehearsed beforehand and group numbers have to sound harmonious. Dancing has to appear as though a choreographer has been involved somewhere in the planning. But no choreographer exists because there is no such planning.

Each cast member has to pay close attention not only to what they are going to do next but what they have just done also. Why? Well this was demonstrated when the narrator cleverly decided to add an additional part to a scene and asked the cast to "rewind" to where they were a minute or two before in their improvised script.

That's all hard enough but it's also got to come across as a seamless production, without pregnant pauses and with a story that makes complete sense.

It's all a recipe for complete disaster.

But, for me at least, this is one of the funniest, most creative, clever pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I know Showstopper has received good feedback from public and press everywhere it has visited. Everybody involved in this show deserves every one of those positive comments.

I know many purists would prefer a traditional musical and I know I've got a sense of humour which many wouldn't share. However, I could watch every show these talented people put on just to see what they come up with next.

I wasn't the only one enjoying this by any means. The laughter, encouragement and appreciation came forth from the Devonshire Park Theatre audience from beginning to end.

If anybody has seen Showstopper and wondered if the suggestions are from audience 'plants' they are most definitely not. No, with one of my suggestions being used for the stammering God of speech I can confirm this is certainly not the case. I did like the touch that the narrator (Pippa Evans) even asked if anybody in the audience would be offended by a stammer being used.

And so we had our story with our heroine Media (Ruth Bratt) and her companions heading to South Africa to climb Table Mountain. Given a lucky charm to protect her from the demons of the flat topped mountain she eventually reaches the peak. Exhausted she finds she cannot descend until she has appeased the Gods including our Stammering God of speech (Philip Pellew) who handled his speech impediment sensitively but with very humorous lines. There was also the sexy juggling God (Lucy Trod) and the pregnant man God too! (Sarah-Louise Young)

I mean where else could you get a musical with characters called Tungsten and Lumbago?

Having appeased the Gods with an offering of her choice Media then heads back to the UK having to decide whether she was still in love with her, stay at home, agoraphobic lover (Adam Meggido) or whether she preferred her rugged climbing companion (Dylan Emery).

The musical parts were impressive to say the least including numbers based on 42nd Street, Les Miserables and Chicago amongst others. We even had a scene in the style of Alan Ayckbourn thrown in for good measure (of course another audience suggestion). If you thought improvisation meant a lack of singing ability these performers would have surprised you with their vocals. With the most involved role, leading lady Ruth Bratt delivered a wonderful vocal performance.

If you look at the biographies of the touring cast you will find that these are some of the most experienced stars of improvisation in the business. Philip Pellew, for example, has been improvising for over 20 years.

I think good improvisational skills are a gift, especially when it comes to staging a full length production.

I am so glad we booked to see Showstopper and I look forward to it making a return to the South-East. It was a show that made me laugh yet also impressed me in so many ways.

Innovative, clever, different, impressive and above all very, very funny! This should be seen by everybody who has a sense of humour!

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