An improvised musical sounds like it could be either brilliant or terrible. Having heard such good reports of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, though, the intrigue peeked and I clicked to buy tickets.
I of course can’t tell you about the show you’ll see, if you go, as every performance is of a brand new musical. But I hope that by relaying what happened the night I was there, you might see just what a fantastic night of entertainment it was. (One of my colleagues booked his tickets immediately after I told him about it!)
Housed in a small auditorium at the Apollo, even those at the very back are only a stone’s throw from the stage, heightening the sense of inclusivity throughout the performance. Show number 640 opened with Sean McCann, ‘The Writer’ (and an excellent, charismatic narrator throughout) receiving a call from his producer demanding a new musical by 10pm. After appealing to the audience for setting suggestions, he gave us the chance to whoop and cheer to select our favourite one.
The winner? A 1920s Shanghai opium den. Very specific!
The title suggestion from another audience-member?
The next order of business was to throw five musicals at them, which would form the basis of the song styles throughout the show. Our choices were an eclectic mix: Cabaret, In the Heights, Anything Goes, Avenue Q, and ‘any Disney’.
And off they went. A Cabaret-style opening number introduced a honeymooning couple, who would quickly be drawn into the seedy underworld of Shanghai’s opium dens. Also present were the groom’s two brothers, who were scheming to get rid of unbearable ‘it-girl’ Jane, their brother’s new wife. Along the way, they both ended up having affairs with her… that’s the kind of thing that happens when you spend your time in the smoky ‘Blue Oyster Bar’, according to the two lizard ladies who had lost their own men.
The second half brought us back to England, to face the consequences of the extended time spent in Shanghai, at the huge stately home occupied by the brothers and their parents. Somehow, in two hours, from the start-point of just a setting, we had seen a full story, with beginning, middle, end, and plenty of twists and turns.
Huge credit must go to Ruth Bratt and Pippa Evans, potentially one of the best double-acts I’ve ever seen on stage. The pair played a variety of characters, from the ‘lizard ladies’, to the boys’ parents, to workers in the opium dens of Shaghai. They played off one another perfectly, and I’m not sure there were many audience members who weren’t in stitches at their one-liners and adopted character traits. Their voices, too, were fantastic. Adam Meggido was another favourite as one of the brothers, who was always there with a new prop, or a little glance to the audience which would prompt plenty of laughter.
As the show went on, every now and then The Writer would move the story along, and bring in a new musical style from the list we had selected as an audience. I was completely in awe of the way the cast plucked from nowhere full lyrics, and very often dance routines, to meet the contexts and styles.
A highlight was the ‘any Disney’ medley. The Writer paused and asked us to shout out a few Disney films, and the results were The Lion King, The Jungle Book, High School Musical and Frozen. Within seconds, the characters had launched into my favourite song of the show, seamlessly moving between the styles of these four very different musicals.
Throughout the interval, we were encouraged to tweet to @theShowstoppers what we wanted to happen next, and having kept an eye on the mentions coming in, I was intrigued to see how on earth they would be worked in. But worked in they were, and we ended up with a martial arts duel in the style of The Confrontation from Les Miserables, and a beautiful song from Sarah-Louise Young in the style of Memory from Cats.
Cats were a recurring theme (bizarre as it sounds), due to a small boy in the front row being spotted clutching a copy of a book called ‘Kittens in Trouble’. Suddenly, this was the favourite childhood story of the three brothers. Prompted by an interval tweet, there was even a reading of a paragraph, set to song, in the second half!
I could probably write for pages and pages about the brilliance of this cast. There were maybe two moments in the whole show where there was a tiny wobble, which was immediately picked up and worked back into the performance. In a two-hour improvised show complete with tonnes of songs, harmonies and full dance routines, I’d say that’s pretty impressive.
The laughs didn’t stop coming, and as an audience you felt completely involved in the creation of what was unfolding in front of you. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to what’s happening on stage, and to realise nobody but the people in the theatre last Friday night will ever experience the show we did, in the way that we did.
If I had unlimited funds I would return night after night to see the fresh material this group come up with. A fantastic night of musical comedy entertainment.