Spontaneity has always been a core principle of theatre, but Showstopper!: the Improvised Musical takes it to another level. Every night, the showstoppers (as the revolving cast affectionately call themselves) create something entirely original, often bizarre, and always musical.
On the night I attended, the show was set in Nashville and called ‘Tennessee Waltz’. Both setting and title were conceived and chosen by audience members at the beginning of the show. Like the classic TV improvisation show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’, there was also an in the style of element: the audience came up with four musicals which the performers would have to evoke through a scene or musical number during the show.
All of this was overseen by the evening’s compère (Dylan Emery). Emery’s job is difficult: firstly, because audiences are notoriously reluctant to participate (and often their contributions are more than a little lacklustre); and secondly, because his role of setting up the improv scene is the slowest and, frankly, dullest part of an otherwise hilarious hour and a half. He did a fantastic job, rejecting the worst audience suggestions with gentle humour and exuding energy with nothing but a plastic telephone to bounce off.
The improv itself is outstanding. It is no wonder that Showstopper! has been running since 2008 and has an Olivier Award to its name. On the night that I reviewed, it was clear that the performers were as surprised with where the action ended up as the audience: namely, a tale of forbidden lesbian love in 60s Tennessee, realised through the medium of dance. It sounds ridiculous, and yet the show produced a couple of genuinely emotive moments, as well as an endless barrage of laughter. For me, the most unexpected and impressive aspect was the performers’ ability to create motifs and running jokes which gave coherence to the overall piece: the characters drinking oil instead of alcohol, for example, and the protagonist’s vast supply of identical hats.
I can understand why some people question the show’s authenticity – creating original music, dialogue and overarching narrative on the spot seems like it should be impossible. However, the performers’ occasional slip-ups prove its verisimilitude while adding to the hilarity. The Tennessee accent led one performer to struggle with the pronunciation of ‘garage’: ‘gay-rage’ quickly became a running gag for the rest of the show. Whenever a plot inconsistency becomes apparent, the performers are the first to highlight it and then play it up for humour. Showstopper! creates a sense of community; the audience feels complicit in the creation of a new show and the showstoppers themselves are utterly in sync with one another. It is a very special kind of magic.
In the performance I saw, Andrew Pugsley did a fantastic ‘My Fair Lady’ inspired number with the refrain ‘I’m a bastard’. Pippa Evans threw out some hilarious lines, including – whilst ruminating on same-sex love – “it probably is in the Bible because that is a confusing book.” Justin Brett performed an inspired monologue on a homophobic character’s gay background – “your grandmammy was the gayest woman I ever known. You got gay running through your bones.” And Adam Meggido’s Papa Steve gave some real heart and emotion to an evolving father-daughter relationship. There was no weak link and it really showed.
That said, the song lyrics created are very repetitive and the dance moves leave a lot to be desired. But these are perhaps the only shortcomings of an otherwise joyous and hysterical night of entertainment. Expect the unexpected; go with ideas in mind for suggestions and prompts; and, most of all, be prepared to leave the theatre cursing that none of what you have just witnessed can ever be seen or listened to again.
Showstopper! is on at The Other Palace until Saturday 16th March. Tickets can be bought here.
PHOTOS: Alex Harvey-Brown
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