Review – An Improbable Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st March 2022

An Improbable MusicalCunning use of language in that title, as it’s not only improbable because this is an improvisation show, so who knows what musical the cast will come up with every night, but also because the show is co-produced by a company called Improbable. Although their name suggests one of those lesser successful teams on an iffy series of The Apprentice, Improbable are, actually, an innovative theatre company that takes all manner of performance arts and mixes them together to make exciting and unpredictable new pieces. So now you know.

I must confess, gentle reader, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have been great fans of the improvisation genre in the past. I never really got the appeal of Whose Line is it Anyway (although everyone else did) and improvisation that I’ve seen on stage normally just raises a few minor chuckles at best. So I didn’t have massive hopes that I’d enjoy this show much – but, of course, I went in with an open mind and a glass of Shiraz to ease the pain.

The CastVerdict: it was a lot funnier than I expected! We were all advised at the beginning that they were two cast members down due to the dreaded Covid, but the structure of the show is such that you got no sense that anyone or any element was missing. One of the things I tend to dislike about improv is the audience constantly having to come up with ideas for the next sketch. But in this show, the audience were just asked three simple questions at the beginning, and the cast set about incorporating those answers during the show. That’s the audience input over and done with.

The process of identifying the audience’s responses within the material that emerges on stage is a source of great amusement. Sometimes you can see it looming obviously right at the beginning of a scene; sometimes it creeps up on you unexpectedly during a conversation or song. Hats off to everyone for seamlessly tailoring their material around the audience’s chosen subjects. It worked extremely well.

Adam CourtingWhat makes this show different from other improv shows is the musical aspect – yes, the clue’s in the title. This is not just an evening of sketches, but an attempt to put together a piece of musical theatre, with a distinct narrative that more or less makes sense from a distinct start to a distinct end. And they pretty much nailed it. Yes, one or two of the scenes came across as a mite random and overly-prolonged; I guess one of the problems with this genre is that you can’t always tell at the beginning of a scene how well it’s going to hang together or how funny it’s going to be. But for the most part it was funny and musically rewarding.

Our story concerned the trial separation of long-married Daisy and Simon and their adventures whilst apart. I really loved the scene where Daisy met up with her old college friends only to realise their relationship was more intimate than she had expected! This was interspersed with another story thread of a single mother finding she’s attracted to a man in a red hat. But who knows what story they’ll perform from show to show? The depth and intensity of the workshopping that they must have done to prepare for this run must have been immense, and it’s a credit to everyone that there wasn’t one moment where things broke down; such self-confidence deserves massive respect.

Josie LawrenceIt’s very much a team effort, but I must give special mention to the wonderful vocal characterisations of Ruth Bratt (not many people can make an entire theatre guffaw at the word cacao) and Niall Ashdown, whose Simon managed to be the biggest drip in the shower whilst still being irresistible to women. And of course Josie Lawrence, whose prestigious musical theatre background lit up her performances of a couple of searing big numbers. All this plus a group of musicians who instinctively knew which direction the show was going without comparing notes with the cast; as I said, that preparation must have been immense.

A unique entertainment, and performed with great style and wit. And no two shows are the same! Catch it at the Royal Theatre before it closes on Saturday night.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!