An Improbable Musical UK Tour Review - Exeter Northcott Theatre
Please note that the photographs featured here may not feature all of the cast members mentioned in this review.
Billed as ‘theatre as live as it gets’, the UK Tour of ‘An Improbable Musical’ invites the audience to witness the creation of a brand new musical every night, based purely on tiny suggestions from audience members and made up as it goes along by a gang of world class improvisors.
Fans of ‘Showstopper: The Improvised Musical’ and ‘Mischief Movie Night’ may think that they know what to expect here having seen musicals and movies made up on the spot before. There are touches of both here with plot lines switching at the drop of a hat and songs sounding rehearsed even when being made up, but with set and puppetry added in, this improv show adds something new to the genre.
The cast consisting of Niall Ashdown, Ruth Bratt, Josie Lawrence, Aya Nakamura, Lee Simpson and Clarke Joseph-Edwards become multiple characters throughout in a selection of stories linked together by suggestions from the audience. As the show begins, the cast ask the audience for a setting (ideally somewhere local to the venue), a word that makes their mouth happy and an opening sentence of an imaginary novel. On this occasion, they were given Tiverton Parkway train station, lollipop and where it all went wrong, resulting in a number of stories involving the romance between both train travellers and train watchers, the magic and mystery of steam trains and the struggle of trains constantly being late.
As warned at the beginning, this is improv, you may see a character only once, or multiple times, and plot lines may go array, but that is all a part of the charm of this production. Throughout the performance we were introduced to a number of characters who appeared multiple times including train spotters Rose and Arabella (Bratt and Lawrence), commuters Graham and Kirsty (Ashdown and Bratt), a constantly late to arrive worker (Lawrence) and a pair of childhood friends who bond over a love of ice lollies, played by Ashdown and Simpson. And whilst these characters weren’t really linked into each other’s stories, instead having their own, they did link back to that original idea of trains.
The cast really are at the top of their game when it comes to improvisation, with Nakamura and Joseph-Edwards providing some lovely puppetry and ensemble work throughout as Ashdown, Bratt, Simpson and Lawrence created some lovely little stories, characters, and scenes. Whilst I think that some of puppetry with sheets of paper and fabric creating steam may have caused some confusion amongst the audience, leading to some strange steps away from previous plots, it was a creative use of props and showcased the casts abilities to improvise their way around anything.
Whilst the whole cast impressed, it was Ruth Bratt that really stood out. Having seen her perform with ‘Showstopper: The Improvised Musical’ on a number of occasions, I know that she has a natural flair for all things comedy, and a skill for slipping innuendos into the narrative, much to the delight of the audience. In this performance, she was able to skip from the sweet Kirsty in her romance story with Ashdown’s Graham, to the confident and cheeky train spotter Rose in her story line with Lawrence’s Arabella, to worker Julia stuck having to explain time to her co-workers. There was plenty of laughter in her train spotting scenes with Lawrence, with both making cheeky jokes that set each other off laughing and leading both to have to step away and start again.
If you have seen performances by the Showstopper Team, you will know just how polished it all appears, despite it being improvised from start to finish and if you have seen Mischief in action, you will know that plot lines can often get twisted, and moments are repeated to change the direction of the story. ‘An Improbable Musical’ is like a combination of the two, with a little bit more of a rough around the edges feel. The songs are slick and polished, whilst the story bounces around from character to character and the cast are allowed to step out of the action and start again. Whilst the plot lines feel mostly complete, there is a sense of the audience looking into the creation process of the show, a sort of ‘this didn’t work, let’s try this instead’ and ‘what if we did this’ experiment kind of thing, trying different things, playing with props and costumes as they go along creating something entirely unique in every performance.
The talented quartet of musicians (Max Gittings, Joley Cragg, Juliet Colyer and Christopher Ash) are just as good at improv as the cast, making up music to both fit and direct the action throughout, with percussionist Cragg even using the metal stairs of the set as a drum kit at one point. Musical highlights included a song about lollipops and the strange people in the park who wanted to steal them and a fun and cheeky number by a time changing watch gremlin.
Overall ‘An Improbable Musical’ showcases the improvising talents of the cast as they manage to put together a show as they go along, with each performer able to think ahead at what they and their cast mates are going to do next. It’s rough around the edges feel adds to the comedy of it all and there is an overall sense of fun and creation throughout the entire performance.