People Show Studios, London E2
18–20 January, 2008

One of oddball theatre guru Ken Campbell’s more recent enthusiasms has been for improvised theatre. A couple of years ago he organised a 36-hour improv marathon, and many of those performers were also involved in this year’s event under the aegis of The Sticking Place company. The inspiration is Edmonton, Alberta’s Die-Nasty, an improvised soap opera which runs weekly and also stages annual marathons; that company’s supremo Dana Andersen, and several of his players, were in London for last weekend’s Improvathon.
There is a predetermined setting – in this case, a Riviera casino in the 1960s; actors choose and develop their own characters; Andersen calls each scene in advance (e.g. “Jean Folie returns with Stormy Spice to her hotel room, only to discover that she hoards cats”), sometimes also specifying a style, and the rest just happens. It happens in shifts of 90-100 minutes at a time, so that this 25-shift event was like watching an entire season of a TV drama on DVD at one sitting. Andersen’s start-of-shift character introductions even mimicked TV credits, with the place of honour at the end always going to “…and Oliver Senton as…” the dashing hero.
Senton is one of a clutch of fearsomely able improvisers at the project’s core. He and Sean McCann can speak off-the-cuff together in Shakespearean verse (McCann even in quatrains), fluent Pinterese and at a couple of points a bizarre hybrid of David Mamet and Dr Seuss. Elsewhere, McCann occasionally succumbs to the pitfall of referentiality or even recitation; he has an extraordinarily well-stocked mind, but sometimes it can hamper his performance muse. The most common problem is the one that dogs all improv: people not working together. The younger performers here (many of them students of one of several teaching members of the company) seldom overtly show off, but nor – especially when arriving midway through the marathon – do they feed enough back into proceedings to keep things fluid and pacy; thus, the long-haul stalwarts have to accommodate themselves to these neophytes as well as finding their own dynamic and still driving the drama.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always work. Campbell maintains that there is a barrier at about 30 hours, after which performers find themselves in a zone of transcendental improv fluency, their conscious brains having been left behind on the road. That seldom happened on this occasion; indeed, at the 30-hour mark (of which I had seen only 16, in two stints), the experience was so much like wading through treacle that even my note-taking pen gave up the ghost, and I followed shortly afterwards, returning for the final couple of shifts. Among the events I had apparently missed were Sticking Place director Adam Megiddo, in his gifted impersonation of Woody Allen, seducing most of the female characters, and a war against an army of cloned Cockney chimney sweeps.
The plot settled early on into a titanic struggle of good versus evil, rigorously simplified in the final hours so that Canadian Mark Meer’s metal-handed supervillain was finally brought down in seconds by his fatal aversion to metaphor. Other stand-out performers included Meer’s compatriot Kurt Smeaton, who was in the Zone for most if not all of the proceedings; Cariad Lloyd, who seemed to increase in energy even as her reality train pulled ever further out of the station; and Josh Darcy, who played a deliciously classic English professor type as well as doing ventriloquial duties with a puppet grizzly bear. Only the most obtrusive loose ends of plot were tied up, but shapeliness and elegance were hardly the point of the venture.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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