An Improbable Musical

Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Improbable
Hackney Empire

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An Improbable Musical

First a confession: I am a long-term fan and frequenter of the Comedy Store Players, who delight audiences every Sunday at Leicester Square with their hysterical wit and surreal flights of fancy. Three of their number are in this troupe: Josie Lawrence, Niall Ashdown and director Lee Simpson.

Improbable also has a handful of musicians led by Christopher Ash including piano and cello and a couple of puppeteers (Clarke Joseph-Edwards and Aya Nakamura). The second half of a Comedy Store Players impro show typically features a musical based on audience suggestions—usually just a title. The players then fabricate a story complete with show-stopping numbers accompanied by a keyboardist. It’s always hysterically funny. So expectations were very high.

Sadly, whilst it’s always a joy to watch Lawrence belt out deadpan show tunes with daft rhymes, this extended musical impro lacked clarity.

The Hackney Empire audience were asked for three suggestions—they came up with a swimming pool location, the phrase “hyperbolic retribution” and a sentence from a fictitious novel ("I couldn't believe what I found in the cupboard under the stairs"). The company opened with Ashdown fatally attempting a dive into said pool. And the slightly sombre tone was set from there, with the cast making up loosely connected scenarios and songs about apparent domestic abuse, a cat killer and the revenge of his neighbours—Lawrence and Ruth Bratt clearly having great fun with their characters’ plummy tones.

Some scenes were brilliant, Simpson having fun with a horrible yuppie banker and Lawrence his long-suffering wife. But others were oddly disjointed and the characters vague. The Comedy Store Players are brutally efficient in defining genre and character and motivation right from the off, but this lacked that kind of economy and there were some strange decisions here, including an unrelated dancing sheet-puppet interlude. And when Simpson led the cast in a kind of incantation to the heavens that seemed to have nothing to do with any of the stories, patience was tested.

But it's churlish to be too critical about the uneven tone because, as Simpson admits in the programme, this is not intended to be just comedy; it is meant to straddle genres: "it is undeniably riskier and more delicate and sometimes it just doesn't work but sometimes it is sublime because we end up improvising not just theatre but new ways to create theatre". So it's dangerous and it's impressive, but—buyer beware.

It’s always a pleasure to see improvisers and singers of this quality make up silliness and the musicians and lighting designers did a great job, but perhaps this extended dramatic structure, at least on the night I saw it, was a touch too ambitious. Other nights can, and will of course, differ.

Reviewer: Tim Fox