As I write this, there are a large group of performers still slugging it out in a fairly sizeable south London theatre, improvising scene after scene in a 50-hour version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. It feels very strange to be reviewing a show that is not even a quarter of the way through at the time of writing.
As I’ve stepped off the train, so to speak, I offer a few thoughts on a production that I suspected just might be a little chaotic, requiring minor points of plotline holes and storyline (in)coherency to be overlooked.
I was wrong. The 9th Annual London Improvathon is not a little chaotic – it is very messy, as talented performer after talented performer is first introduced to the stage, and, because there are so many of them, they must engage the audience sufficiently for us to know their character. On hand to assist with this process is the artistic director of Extempore Theatre, Adam Meggido, whose introductions and instructions seemed to me to be of equal benefit to both audience and cast, as he lay down challenges and scene setting, specifying parameters whilst not being too prescriptive, allowing the cast members space to stamp their own authority on proceedings.
It was not an entirely blank canvas, with a suitably retro set, with which a bit of ingenuity and imagination could either be transformed into a saloon bar or the concourse of “London Station”, a name which came across as absurd at the time but in hindsight, it was sensible to go with “London Station”, lest anoraks like me should start analysing train routes from London termini and thinking if it would really be feasible for the Orient Express to travel from a particular station. In another scene, a character was eating a banana, presumably for the same reason David Dimbleby consumes bananas during all night General Election broadcasts – as a source of energy. Perhaps they will all be eating bananas by around Episode 15 (of 25).
It is, as I say, very messy (after Scene 1, Episode 1, Meggido was almost already sighing with a quip, “It’s only going to get weirder!”), but it works, as the actors attempt to catch one another out, with varying degrees of success. There are knowing looks thrown to the audience when the occasion allows for it, and things are kept laugh-out- loud funny as any inconsistencies are magnified rather than ignored. There’s a boldness and confidence to recognise when something doesn’t quite make sense, or comes across as ambiguous or unrealistic, and this wins the audience over repeatedly, as does a palpable sense that they’re up there enjoying themselves as much as we in the audience are watching it. By definition, it must be remembered, not even they know precisely how things will turn out.
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Unlike Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, suggestions from the audience are not taken, and the benefits and drawbacks of this can be debated at some length. Naturally, some punchlines are set up in such a way that the end result is easily predicted; this only makes the unexpected twists all the more enjoyable.
Such is the fluidity of the ‘improvathon’ that there is no programme, and certainly no dramatis personae, and it is highly unlikely, of course, that the same actors will retain the same characters throughout. There are, quite literally, minor characters yet unknown in what is simultaneously a very short and a very long run. This is a unique experience, and I am simply in adoration of those who are attempting to sit through the whole thing, let alone perform in it.
By the time I left, the said ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ had already happened; the discovery of the body of Veronica Victim (Briony Redman) served as a cliff-hanger; if Fantine dies one-sixth of the way through Les Miserables, Veronica has died less than one-twenty-fifth of the way through the London Improvathon – less than four per cent of the show had elapsed. I suppose there is much entertainment to be had in the various lines of enquiry that will follow. There’s a lot that went on in a fast-paced and slick first episode, but the stand-out performers for me were Ruth Bratt as Miss Marple, Belinda Cornish as Gloria Swanson (or, more accurately, Belinda Cornish as Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, setting aside that the show is set in the 1930s and the Sunset Boulevard film was not released until 1950), and Ken Hall as Robert (pronounced, apparently, ‘Rob-err’), who provided a running gag as a porter attempting to carry far too much luggage in one go.
I have treated the opening ‘episode’ like any other press night performance, but I have loved and laughed my way through this remarkable achievement so much that I’m voluntarily popping back for more as the weekend goes on. I am genuinely interested in how things will turn out. But don’t just take it from me: I was positioned close to where the actors not on stage at any given point are sat, ready at a few seconds notice to take to the stage again. They seemed as enthralled and entertained, if not more so, than those of us in the audience proper, by one another’s performances and punchlines. And this was, perhaps, the most raucous and receptive audience I have ever encountered, and as I write this, I suspect the cast is still feeding off that energy.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Directors: Adam Meggido, Sean McCann
Performers include: Seamus Allen, Alex Bartram, Katharine Bennett-Fox, Ruth Bratt, Justin Brett, Joseph Chance, Julie Clare, Tessa Coates, Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Alan Cox, Belinda Cornish, Dylan Emery, William Ewart, Helen Foster, Paul Foxcroft, Ken Hall, Susan Harrison, Ali James, Tristan Langlois, Cariad Lloyd, Kory Mathewson, Mark Meer, Nils Petter Mørland, Nell Mooney, Philip Pellew, Maria Peters, Andrew Pugsley, Briony Redman, Lauren Shearing, Luke Sorba, Dan Starkey, Lucy Trodd, Donovan Workun, Sarah-Louise Young
Musicians include: Chris Ash and Richard Baker
The 9th Annual London Improvathon
A 50 Hour Improvised Comedy Soap Opera
In 25 episodes
Set aboard The Orient Express
at the LOST Theatre from 7.00pm on Friday 29 April and playing in 2-hour episodes until Sunday 1 May at 9.00pm …yes, right through the nights!
London’s celebrated annual 50-Hour Improvathon (The Stage Top 5 Fringe Theatre Events of 2015), a massive improvised comedy soap opera starring many of the world’s leading improvisers, is back for a ninth year!
The 9th London Improvathon started at 7.00pm on Friday 29th April 2016 with 100 minute episodes every two hours ending Sunday 1st May 2016 at 9.00pm. (i.e episodes start at 7.00pm, 9,00pm, 11.00pm, 01.00am, 03.00am etc….). As the performers become increasingly sleep-deprived, they become unable to censor themselves, resulting in a wild and euphoric playing style unlike anything you’ve ever seen!
Tickets can be bought for a specific 2-hour episode or you can buy a full 50-hour event pass for just £55 (only £45 if you book by 30 March). There will also be a special ‘Family Episode’ on Sunday 1 May at 11.00am – suitable for kids of all ages!
The 9th London Improvathon is directed by Adam Meggido, who just this week has been double Olivier Award nominated for Showstopper! The Improvised Musical (Best Entertainment and Family Show) and Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Best New Comedy). He holds the world record for directing continuous improv – 55 hours in Toronto in 2013!
Follow @theimprovathon for live tweeting throughout the event!
The 9th London Improvathon
208 Wandsworth Road
London SW8 2JU
Box office: 0207 720 6897