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The Owls Are Not What They Seem plus Improvable and James & I

The Owls Are Not What They SeemThe one-act play is becoming more common, even in the West End, but ticket prices are virtually the same as that of a two-act play, or otherwise very marginally reduced, so the price per minute of performance has been grossly inflated. Some theatres have a double bill, thus retaining value for money, and here, the Nursery Theatre goes one better, with a triple bill of improvised comedy, and very reasonably priced at that.

James and I, a collaboration between James Haskin and James Irving, perform podcasts, which are recorded as live – that is, improvised and unedited – before being sent over to a musician who plays and records an underscore, also as live. (Quite why the whole thing couldn’t simply be recorded as live wasn’t explained, but there we have it.) For their live performances, such as this, the positions are reversed, so that the music is pre-recorded but the dialogue is entirely improvised.

As Stef Bellucci Sessa of Improvable later remarked, it was “weird”. The setting took a while to establish, and the background as to why Harry (James Haskin) is in this facility which he cannot escape from. I wondered if this might be a form of Hell, as per Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit, except Harry appears to be in solitary confinement, so ‘hell is other people’ is neither here nor there.

Having suspended disbelief, there is an assumption that these two – the other one being a doctor or research facility administrator of some sort – are going to be having daily conversations for an extended period, otherwise, this would be a very short sketch indeed. The passage of time is marked by a cheery ‘good morning’ by the doctor, and Harry was in remarkably good spirits for someone with only reading material for company.

A series of quick-fire ‘games’ from Improvable was improvised theatre at its most raw and most daring, and thus at its most entertaining. Taking suggestions from the audience, who were invited to supply the cast with place names and motion picture genres (and so on), the trust between Utku Guder, Stef Bellucci Sessa and Karolina Kriks was very much evident. Granted, there was a lot of scope for interpretation within what the audience suggestions were (all sorts of shenanigans could occur in a romantic movie, for instance), but the alertness and thinking on the spot were incredible to witness. Some of the narrative that transpired was quite absurd, but always hilarious. A particular highlight for me was a ‘game’ in which a storyline was described to the audience, but not to a performer, who had left the performance space so as not to hear what was being said. On re-entry, the plot would be mimed and, with our third performer back in the room, described again, based on what could be reasonably interpreted. Utterly hysterical.

The main feature, ‘The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Improvised Twin Peaks’ suffered from the production trying too hard. Everything was improvised, except, to quote directly from the introduction, “the parts that are not improvised”. Oh dear. This did, at least, supply the audience with a guessing game as the show progressed, as to what was pre-planned and what wasn’t in terms of dialogue. The play takes as its backdrop the television series called Twin Peaks, that aired in the United States in 1990-91. Interest in the original series has recently increased because a limited series sequel called Twin Peaks: The Return aired on American television from May to September 2017.

A note in the show’s programme is worth repeating here. “This event is not endorsed, sponsored or affiliated with Twin Peaks Productions, Inc., David Lynch, CBS or Showtime Networks Inc. or the TWIN PEAKS franchise.” Damien Crisp (Dan Starkey) is the lead detective assigned to an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Bill Piper, a mechanic. A three-piece band (Adam Morris, Alexander Fox, Tom Hodge) plays almost continuously throughout the play, sometimes somewhat unnecessarily.

Amplified instruments and unamplified voices are not always mixed well, and some pleasure seemed to be taken in interrupting dialogue with a very loud and prolonged note. At first, it had some comic effect, but it was repeated and repeated to the point of flogging a dead horse. I don’t know if this was something to do with actors in certain television dramas whose voices cannot be heard properly and parodying inaudibility. Either way, the loud noise became boring to listen to and slowed down the pace of the play quite considerably.

The performances, when the band permitted the audience to hear them, were (presumably deliberately) bordered on melodramatic more often than was strictly necessary. Some of the female performers took on male characters – quite impressively, I hasten to add. Whodunnits are, I am reliably informed, amongst the most difficult genres to tackle in an improvised show, and this production did well to maintain interest with many moments of comic relief. The ending, when all was revealed, was suitably unexpected. Not entirely without imperfections (but then, that’s ‘improv’ for you), this turned out to be a spirited and agreeable evening.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The Owls Are Not What They Seem revisits the strangest town in Washington State, along with new inhabitants you didn’t know to be afraid of. Inspired by the groundbreaking work of David Lynch and his seminal TV show Twin Peaks, each unscripted and entirely improvised episode will chart a brand new hidden mystery in a sleepy town torn apart by the forces of good and evil.

Full cast:
Lucy Trodd, Tom Skelton, Dan Starkey, Helen Foster, Alexander Jeremy, Simon Lukacs, Carl Batchelor, Victoria Shepherd, Jonathan Broke, Emily Brazee, Audra Goffeney.



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