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An unparalleled achievement in London theatre: 50 hours of improvised drama – Review

ImprovathonYou never forget your first time,” wrote my esteemed fellow reviewer Terry Eastham in November 2015 following a visit to the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. And while The 9th Annual London Improvathon is hardly a red carpet, black tie affair, it’s an experience unique enough to justify a reprise of those words. With a theme of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, this was a show that will stay in my mind for some time.

Dramaturgically speaking, things went off on all sorts of tangents to the point that this wasn’t the only play in London that goes wrong, and there’s little to be impressed by an Orient Express train that somehow ends up at various points in Cuba, the England of Elizabeth I, Iceland and the stratosphere, with characters resurrected from previous Improvathons because the creatives appeared to have run out of, um, creativity.

Having already passed verdict on Episode 1, treating it as any other press ‘night’, and sorted the laundry and miscellaneous other bits and bobs that come under the umbrella term ‘weekend life admin’, I returned to the Lost Theatre in Stockwell at a time when I would normally be coming back from a London theatre on a Saturday evening. I walked back in to discover the hardcore front rowers had discovered some sockets on either side of the stage, allowing them to recharge their phones and tablets.

The gadgets were not the only ones recharging; having picked a spare seat, I was very promptly told off by someone in the row behind me who loudly instructed me to take the seat to the right of me instead, as I would be obstructing his view as he wanted to continue viewing proceedings from a horizontal position, taking up three, possibly four seats, by doing so.

Many people had left for the night, so there was space enough to nap, though people did so mostly in short bursts, and largely in the intervals between the 100-minute episodes. Around 4.15am on Sunday morning, however, the show paused to listen to the sounds of snoring in the stalls, and the company responded in kind by singing a lullaby number. It took some strength on my part to hold myself back from heckling, “You’re not helping!” I must say I can only agree with studies that have concluded sleep deprivation causes people to get the munchies: the auditorium was, by the time the Andrew Marr Show was taking to the airwaves on BBC One, littered with empty pizza boxes, triangular sandwich containers and plastic drink bottles galore. The London Improvation might be onto something – imagine other shows in which the company director stopped proceedings and ordered the cast to whip their phones out and eat food out of noisy wrappings!

Any semblance of this being a murder mystery (the whole thing was meant to be based on the theme ‘Murder on the Orient Express’) was firmly incinerated in the final hours. The children’s hour, the Sunday 11am slot (Episode 21) was appropriately non-violent such that the murder mystery thread couldn’t be recovered. But at least, with the doors open to the next generation of theatregoers, certain members of the cast and audience took the opportunity to re-introduce themselves to their offspring. I am not sure which is more of a test of endurance: 50 hours of theatre or 50 hours of babysitting.

The audience participation continued to increase episode by episode. Let me put this another way: some managers and players at top flight Premier League football clubs have, with some justification, and for some time, complained about the lack of atmosphere at matches. The reasons for this are more appropriately discussed on sports websites, but suffice to say this very non-corporate event produced more noise, cheering and applause than could be witnessed from the stands of various stadia in England today. The Lost Theatre seats 181 people, but from the ringing in my ears after the final curtain call, there might as well have been tens of thousands there.

I suppose the clue is in the name. This being the ninth annual London Improvathon, it’s all been done before, though I note that not all of them had a Bank Holiday immediately following. I still felt at times that the large cast had bitten off a little more than they could chew, but they would always come back stronger – rhyming couplets and musical numbers were being done at a time of night when I would ordinarily, if I were still awake at all, be watching a roulette wheel go round and round on ITV.

The sordidness of the Saturday night/Sunday morning episodes were banished by the impending Sunday morning children’s hour, before which both the auditorium and the performers’ mouths were cleared up; earlier lines such as “I’m a gynaecologist – I’m gonna stick a spatula up your [see you next Tuesday]” were replaced by kind offers of cups of tea and cupcakes. But it was still to be enjoyed rather than tolerated, and a Bollywood-inspired dance led by Raj (Herman Gambhir) had everyone on their feet in a simple (therefore doable for the audience) but memorable routine, rightly reprised as the epilogue at the end of episode 25.

Perhaps the most insightful few moments came at around 2.30am on Sunday morning, where, having momentarily lost his place, night director Sean McCann took a step back and asked both cast and audience how they were doing. I learned a fair amount from this thoughtful filler, where performers spoke about increasing lack of depth perception and not quite knowing if they are just ‘hearing things’; members of the audience testified to being unsure of time and place on occasion. Indeed, I observed that almost every noise was responded to in some way; if a member of the audience, for example, came back in during the middle of a scene without tiptoeing, this didn’t go unnoticed. The setup of the Lost Theatre being what it is, the cast were using the same bar during the intervals as the audience, and the bags under the eyes of some of them were very noticeable. Slightly frightening, even. But it was clear from the ‘time out’ that the overall success of the show was dependent on cast members supporting one another, and they certainly did that in spades.

At the beginning of each episode is a long prologue, consisting of each character saying hello and (re)introducing themselves to the audience: the assumption being, correctly, that there are people at the start of each two-hour slot that are joining proceedings either for the first time or otherwise having missed any number of previous episodes. There was little, if any, acting required when Joseph Chance announced at the start of the penultimate episode that “my legs have almost gone” – the performers were their own stage hands – or when Herman Gambhir emotionally expressed thanks “with all my heart” at the beginning of the last episode, which went on as it started, becoming the Very Long Goodbye. With various characters stepping off the Orient Express at its final destination, Istanbul, things ended positively in scene after scene, leaving the audience decisively ecstatic by the end of it all.

It was 39-and-a-half hours into the show before I personally witnessed a ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ resolved, on this occasion by the irrepressible Miss Marple (Ruth Bratt), having missed at least two other wrap-up scenes; given the mayhem that preceded it, the explanation as to ‘whodunnit’ was surprisingly credible. In the final hours, as the set gradually suffered the extent of use, abuse and misuse, and with more and more musical numbers thrown into the mix, the show was less ‘murder mystery’ and more ‘Noises Off meets Crazy For You’.

The standout scenes for me included Alan Cox paying tribute to Ronnie Corbett (and later, Alan Rickman) sat in a chair and spinning a narrative; Ken Hall’s Robert Duckey finally perfecting a technique in Episode 25 of carrying six cases at once, which he started attempting in Episode 1 – the result lifted the roof off the Lost Theatre as cast and audience cheered and cheered; the wedding of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot (Justin Brett); Rick (Kory Mathewson) and Morty (Donovan Workun) who have indulged in time travel to be the Orient Express’ comedy duo eventually classed as detectives; Julie Clare as a parody of Sigmund Freud; Archie Wolfsbain (Seamus Allen), a presence in every single episode (or so I’ve been told) and engagingly farcical to the end. I understand Richard Baker is the first UK musician to have acted as musical director for 50 hours – very many congratulations on this landmark achievement.

Yes, I enjoyed it, and unless the 28 hours of it that I didn’t see were markedly inferior to the 22 hours I was present for (unlikely as repeated references were made during the last episodes to everything that went on before), I remained as impressed and astonished at 9pm on Sunday night as I was at 9pm on Friday night. You really never forget your first time.

5 Star Rating

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!

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