Friday, 25 January 2019

REVIEW: Showstopper! The improvised musical at The Other Palace


A red ‘bat’ phone rings and lights up. Our MC for the evening picks it up and answers with one word: Cameron. And so we’re off with Showstopper, the improvised musical’s one thousandth performance.

The conceit is that ‘Cameron’ has called demanding a new hit musical. And he wants it tonight. “But I’ve literally given you 999 other musicals already,” says our MC. Fortunately, he tells Cameron, a room full of musical theatre experts is on hand to help. That’s us. And so the audience is invited to come up with the setting for the new show along with some musical styles and a title. In fact this produced one of the best ad libs of the night when the audience member who suggested the setting should be a Yorkshire soup factory in 1882 was asked, why 1882? “It was a good year for soup!” he replied, setting the bar for the cast.

My expectation was that the only possible way to improvise a full-length musical would be to have laid down some place holders in advance and shoe-horn in references to the audience’s ingredients around them. But it becomes clear from the outset that this is not what’s happening. Sure, with a thousand shows under their collective belts it’s inconceivable the company haven’t previously adopted (and adapted) the musical stylings of say Oklahoma! or Singing in the Rain, so these markers presumably present no serious challenge. However, the cast take these as jumping-off points for sometimes elaborately constructed numbers featuring character and plot development, choreography, harmony and even in one case two counterpoint duets at the same time. 

The improvisation doesn’t mean you have to settle for a second-best show. You’re not left feeling it was good “considering it was improvised.” For much of the time that consideration is eradicated as you are swept along with the story and the songs. There was only one request which almost beat them, which was for a song naming 30 different types of soup in the style of Joseph’s Coat from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. As anyone who’s ever performed that song (and who hasn’t?) will know, it’s a tall order to rattle off all those colours even when Tim Rice has written them down for you in advance!

The cast work off each other and the band in a remarkable way. They take each
other’s cues and join-in choruses in the blink of an eye, hardly ever talking across each other’s lines or leaving silence. They concentrate on their characters and the overall story, giving generous performances which help each other rather than setting traps. And the focus is on creating a proper musical, not on extracting cheap jokes by making fun of the improvisation process or by breaking the fourth wall with knowing asides. 

What also occurred to me, and which I hadn’t previously considered, is if the dialogue, movement, music and choreography are all improvised, where does that leave the sound and lighting? The answer is, I suspect, on their toes. Not much chance to pre-programme all the settings into a laptop and press ‘go’ on a show like this.

True, it can’t capture the highs of the best moments in a conventionally written musical. The melodies are mostly workmanlike rather than inspired (although the closing number was actually quite catchy!). But it was funny, witty and if I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. 

Review by John Charles

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: J11 | Price of ticket: £39.50
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