Showstopper! The Improvised Musical.
30 September 2015
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A unique problem for a theatre critic: how do you review a production which has not been created, let alone performed? A musical for which there is no script, no score, no theme, no star? Yet there it is: this is the unique conundrum posed by Showstopper! The Musical which started its first proper West End season last evening at the Apollo Theatre (having had guest spots previously)
Well, as Rodgers and Hammerstein advise: Climb Every Mountain. So, here goes.
The underlying notion of Showstopper! is both blissfully simple and fiendishly difficult. A handful of performers, a set of mix-n-match costumes, colourful and adaptable, some simple items of IKEA type pieces of set, again colourful and adaptable, a trio of savvy musicians at the ready, with riffs and vamps by the score, a chalkboard, and a witty, charming host: these are the basic ingredients. The unique flavour comes from the unpredictable audience.
The host elicits requests from the audience: What sort of musical do you want to see and hear? What type of music? What kinds of opening number? What themes should be explored? Any special plot points? Depending on the audience's willingness to be crazy and kooky, the result can be breath-taking: a 19th Century Chinese Fable about forced marriage, butterflies, and spotted dick pudding, with music in the style of Gershwin and Lloyd Webber, a form that might work for Mozart, a plot point about penguin droppings, and an opening number in the style of Hair. That sort of thing. The requests in, the cast set about instantly creating and performing the requested musical. On the spot. No rehearsal, no script, no safety net. Just go!
If you attend the theatre regularly, you will undoubtedly have encountered that rare, awful, but entirely exquisite, moment when an actor dries, a prop fails, a door doesn't open or a dress falls apart. You will recognise the peculiar, particular moment of fused horror and wonder that flickers across the features of the cast as some battle to keep going and others try, usually hopelessly, to stifle laughter. Showstopper! thrives on such moments; indeed, in a way, the adrenalin from the uncertainty about the choice another actor will make fuels the comedy and creativity.
Press Night being Press Night the host was forced to remonstrate with the audience, battering away suggestions for themes and content that might result in “us disappearing up our own arses”. Nevertheless, the chosen topic for the evening was the Daily Mail and a tale of love repressed, requited and revenged amongst those who pound out the print agenda of that tone. Sounds dry as desert sand?
It was hilarious.
Refreshing, edge-of-your-seat, laugh-out-loud funny, raw and satirical, polished inventiveness. There is nothing like it on the West End. It can go anywhere, do anything, say/sing anything – and it revels in so doing.
There is a prodigious amount of talent being deployed in every Showstopper! performance. The cast varies from show to show, but the team is Ruth Bratt, Justin Brett, Dylan Emery, Pippa Evans, Susan Harrison, Sean McCann, Adam Meggido, Philip Pellew, Andrew Pugsley, Oliver Senton, Lucy Trodd and Sarah-Louise Young. Not a bum note or tragic turn amongst them. As an ensemble, they so know each other and each other’s likely choices, are so relaxed about making up material on the spot, that the combined improvisation achieves a sense of polished professionalism which is, frankly, astonishing.
There are book musicals playing on the West End which come nowhere near the artistry, excitement and sheer brilliance of Showstopper!
Dylan Emery is excellent as the suave but acerbic host – his banter with the audience is terrific, especially as Act Two begins and he deals with the tweets which engaged audience members have sent with suggestions for the coming Act. He also keeps the mother ship from striking rocks, as he can intervene and stop the action every time he thinks the performers would benefit from a break, or when a pause can permit a new thought or idea to be seamlessly thrown into the mix. He is judicious about intruding, but every time he does, the dial is turned upwards.
There was particularly excellent work from Ruth Bratt (a delightfully ghastly Managing Editor, the kind who could have given birth to Darth Vader while sipping a martini and firing a non performing journalist), Pippa Evans (an intern with a penchant for power and an inability to embrace monogamy), Sarah-Louise Young (an enigmatic octogenarian tea lady), Andrew Pugsley (bespectacled dork pining for the girl) and Justin Brett (musician dork pining for the girl) and Adam Meggido (general dogsbody/glue, as well as hilarious cameo as gay man who is open about why his love did not work out). Just thinking again about some of the antics has me laughing out loud at my desk.
I can still hum along to the Act One finale, My Time To Change, so infectious was the spontaneous tune. The West Side Story inspired Snap! Crackle! Pop! made one laugh til tears were inescapable, with lots of faux-Jets/Sharks moments which would have made Jerry Robbins’s toes curl. The Mamma Mia inspired Things Are Gonna Change Round Here was another joyful moment and I particularly wished I could have been able to replay the barbed balled about love that Meggido and Brett sang about each other and their shattered romance. Musically, this was better than you would have any reason to expect – smart, satirical and swell. A real treat of a makeshift score.
The musicians are startling in their assuredness. None every looks concerned about where the beat will go or the tempi change to come or the inevitable key change. No doubt there are rehearsed signals which can make such things easier, but on any view of it, these musicians have the toughest night in a West End pit (or on stage platform) and they endlessly deliver. The tunes they pound out are full of in-jokes depending upon the styles they are asked to mimic. So much enjoyment.
No audience will ever see the production I saw, just as I will not see the production tomorrow’s audience will see. In this way, Showstopper! is absolutely unique. And a phenomenal achievement.
Go and go again. Its irrepressible, irresistible fun of the incredibly skilled and imaginative time. It makes you remember how genuinely exciting and engaging musical theatre can be.