Including the two shows which the press were invited to review for this West End run, I have now seen a total of 11 separate performances of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical over the last few years, and can vouch for the production’s claims that each and every performance is entirely distinct and unique. I had mistakenly put down ‘The Improved Musical’ (as opposed to ‘Improvised’) in my diary – this turned out to be a Freudian slip: it’s bigger, and better than ever before.
Riding on progressively larger waves, the latest of which being a successful Edinburgh Festival run this summer, the show (for the completely uninitiated) takes ideas from the audience, takes the most salient suggestions and puts them to an audience vote. The most supported ideas, such as setting, show title or musicals from which numbers in the show should be substantially based on, are incorporated into the show. Tweets are invited just prior to the interval for ideas on how the narrative should progress, and before Act Two begins properly a selection of tweets are read out, sometimes to great hilarity. One such tweet was more of a complaint than a suggestion, where a member of the audience took the opportunity to tweet that two ladies in a couple of rows further forward were incessantly talking over dialogue.
The show was certainly a talking point in the stalls bar at the interval, with numerous people asking each other, “What shall we tweet?” Dylan Emery as host had an incredible rapport with the audience from the start, and with his usual professionalism and skill shaped the diverse ideas put forward for consideration into a relatively coherent narrative. This being totally improvised, members of the company sometimes catch each other out, often quite boisterously.
The attention to detail is phenomenal – any cracks in the storyline are soon enough either explained or at least acknowledged. Occasionally Emery rises to his feet, and all action stops (rather like the Speaker in the House of Commons rising to restore a parliamentary debate to order), and a point is clarified. This proved particularly useful when the story was being driven forward without proper context. At other times, Emery intervenes to invite the audience once again to propose a musical style or decide which way to proceed at a crossroads in the narrative. The cast are adept at rising to any challenge thrown at them, including singing front page Daily Mail headlines in the style of the music of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, or (most astonishing of all for me) telling a backstory at top speed in the form of a Gilbert & Sullivan-style patter song.
The continual breaking of the fourth wall keeps both audience and cast on their toes – and therefore it is rigorously engaging from the first note to the big finale. I pay particular tribute to musical director Duncan Walsh Atkins and his on-stage band, who were magnificent in supporting the cast so flawlessly and (seemingly) effortlessly.
The humour in the parodying of well-known musical theatre productions may not be fully understood by those unfamiliar (for instance) with the powerhouse vocals and stretched vowels of ‘Dreamgirls’ numbers, or the slightly overstated but highly majestic style of songs from ‘Les Miserables’ – but the storyline is straightforward enough to follow, and nobody comes out of a Showstopper! performance asking, “What was that all about?”
The range of musical theatre shows selected to base songs on is more than sufficiently broad for there to be something for everyone to enjoy (there was even a rap in the style of Shakespearean blank verse). Showstopper! is all the more remarkable given the amount of effort and thought that often goes into writing scripted musicals. And it works in a larger venue – the bigger the audience, the greater the range of suggestions, and the wider the amount of material to work from.
Leaving aside that Cameron Mackintosh is extremely unlikely to produce a show set in a fairy grotto in suburban Belfast called ‘Puck Off’ any time soon, Showstopper! really should be on one of those bucket lists as something to experience before you die. Equally tasteful and daring, it was a joy to see Showstopper! inhabit a West End stage – I hope this is only the first of many big, bold and boisterous London runs for this production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Showstopper! The Improvised Musical at the Apollo Theatre
A brand new musical is created from scratch at every single performance of this multi award – winning show. Each night, audience suggestions are instantly transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing production with unpredictable and hilarious results! With seven years as an Edinburgh Fringe must – see phenomenon, four sell-out West End seasons and an acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series to their name, The Showstoppers have delighted audiences across the globe with their ingenious blend of comedy, musical theatre and spontaneity. Whether you fancy Sondheim on a ski lift, or Cole Porter in Poundland – you suggest it and The Showstoppers will sing it!
The Showstoppers Arrive On Shaftesbury Avenue
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Age Restrictions: Ages 12+
Show Opened: 24th September 2015
Booking Until: 29th November 2015
Important Info: Includes one 20 minute interval
Showstopper! The Improvised Musical
31 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7ES
Wednesday 30th September 2015