BWW Review: SHOWSTOPPER! THE IMPROVISED MUSICAL, The Other Palace
The Other Palace was intended to be a 'space where writers and producers can try out and refine new work'. Showstopper! The Improvised Musical only seems to be aiming for half of this ethos. Alas, it seems doubtful that last night's Cream of Yorkshire will ever be further refined.
Yet, the performers' wits and synchronicity are such that the result is quite incredibly polished - considering the whole show is spontaneously made up, based on prompts from the audience.
Showstopper! have been making it up as they go since 2007, so, as far as improvisers can, they know what they're doing. Their body of work now totals a thousand new musical shows, they have received accolades including an Olivier, and the only part of their work that seems a little tired is the beginning.
A phone call comes in; it's their producer - Cameron, obviously. This element of setting up the show has the air of a faithfully followed formula, a quality happily absent from the rest of the piece. Creator and director Dylan Emery calls on the audience for a setting and musical influences. The audience cheer for their preferences - and somehow The Showstoppers ended up in a northern Yorkshire soup kitchen, in 1882.
And then they're off - supported by a versatile three-piece band (Chloe Potter, Chris Ash and Alex Atty, with Emery's added guitar skills) and in the style of very many musicals, the company of six feed off one another and beloved musical theatre tropes to improvise the show. It's entertaining, hilarious and hugely impressive.
Pippa Evans deserves a special mention. Her Cabaret-esque rendition of "It's a big house...a large house" somehow made something kinky and quite creepy into a hysterically funny musical number. One suspects it did not necessarily make sense - but that it made as much sense as do many cabaret numbers. Seeming impressively comfortable, Evans's hilarious decisions were conspicuous throughout.
Ruth Bratt also shone. Her bold, wacky and stylistically apt dialogue and vocals were hugely enjoyable. She played to her specific audience, at one point exclaiming "I've a lot of pent-up emotion - I'm from London!" and provided biting satire on contemporary social issues.
In Act One, she sang that "it's a good morning to feed the poor...always leave them wanting more". In Act Two, she kicked a needy child's body out of the way in order to carry out her benevolent resolution.
The costumes, designed by Gabriella Slade, are gloriously awful: all the average musical theatregoer both adores and knows to be ridiculous. Simon Scullion's props and set, are numerous enough to provide versatility and opportunities for play, but never distract. The actors use of them is a masterclass in stagecraft.
The achievement is not that it is seamless, although it often is; inadvertent discrepancies are often enjoyed by the cast and the audience are very much included in the jokes. There's no trying to pretend that things are under control - and that provides half the fun.
The whole cast improvised surprisingly fluent, coherent and almost always rhyming lyrics, and whenever things seemed to be going a bit too well or someone thought they could exit a scene with safety, Emery would pause proceedings to suggest a rewind or addition in the style of one of the audience's suggestions.
Thus, the audience were treated to a rendition of one character's colloquial (and entirely unintelligible) maxim in the style of Oklahoma, and the second act somehow ended up finishing with a Rocky Horror-style scene in a church.
It's perhaps, therefore, not for the easily offended. It is also a show for those who have a base knowledge of musical theatre; although it consistently pastiches the form itself, it is the gently ribbing of a company who can pinpoint the ridiculous within musicals even whilst they dedicate 1,000 evenings to the form.
Musical theatre is ripped to shreds for the entertainment of those who love musicals - I venture by those who love musicals. For the performers and audience alike, even those who have seen it before, it is the definition of trying something new.
Photo credit: Karla Gowlett