At the Edinburgh Fringe, you don’t have to look very hard to find a show that involves at least some element of improv, and over the years some now rather well-known theatre companies have made a name for themselves doing just that; Showstopper! The Improvised Musical and Mischief Theatre to give you just a couple of examples, now legends in the world of improvisation. But now, I firmly believe that you can add another company who have proven themselves to be experts in the art to that list, and that company is Degrees of Error with their production ‘Murder She Didn’t Write’.
Whilst improvision shows often state ‘anything could happen’ and completely and utterly mean it; stories could happen anywhere, the plot could go anywhere, and so on, the clue is in the title here. At its heart, this is a murder mystery, at least one character will meet an untimely end and the detective will have to solve the mystery. Other than that, yes, anything could happen.
We are introduced to a collection of colourful characters, both figuratively and literally, with each performer donning a certain colour that works its way into their name (think Cluedo and you’ll get the drift). These characters, along with the detective are played by a rotating cast, with people changing characters/colours between performances.
As the show begins, the detective using the throw of a hat to find their sidekick in the audience and it’s up to this sidekick to choose from audience suggestions both a location for the murder mystery and an object that will become very involved in it as well as being tasked with picking two colours at random, one for the murderer and one for the victim. These are then shown to the cast in secret. After that, it’s over to the cast to create the story, effortlessly making it up as they go along. There are costumes created in seconds, flashbacks and plot twists that keep the audience hanging on to every moment, and it is just so wickedly clever as well as ridiculously funny.
The detective plays a pivotal role here, not only having to keep track of where the story is going so that they can construct a solution to the mystery, no matter how strange it is, but also plays a part in controlling the story to some extent. Not telling them what to do, but adding in their own ideas, normally just to mess with cast mates and push them gently to more comedy extremes. (If you’ve seen Mischief Movie Night, think ‘Oscar’ messing with Harry Kershaw and you can imagine the kind of things that the detective comes up with).
I actually caught this show twice over the time that I was at the fringe, after all it is completely different each time. Firstly, it was a fashion competition at the Met Gala (the metropolitan Police gala of course), complete with runway strutting, costumes, pickled onions, and a rather troublesome cane. Then, at the special late-night gender swapped Murder He Didn’t Write show, it was a ballet show complete with bird watching, high heels, multiple deaths, and some costume malfunctions. Both had the audience in absolute stitches from start to end, with delight found not only in the brilliantly improvised stories that the cast created with plot twists that earnt gasps throughout but also in the pure happiness that radiated from the cast. One of the greatest moments for me in improvised comedy is when the cast themselves begin to laugh, and this is a production that came with a fair amount of corpsing corpses. The cast’s laughter only inspires the audience to laugh more, creating a shared experience.
Improvisation is a tricky game, these casts have to make it look easy, creating slick put together shows that have a followable plot, and Degrees of Error prove that they can do just that. They are at the top of their game, and with consistently sell out shows in the Pleasance One, they’ve found themselves a fan base who absolutely love what they do.
Here's hoping there’s a lot more to come from this brilliantly hilarious company beyond the Fringe.