Many of those who entered the Playroom last night to catch the Impronauts’ Valentine’s production, Improv Actually, may have done so hesitantly. Improv, seemingly by its very nature, is hit and miss. People struggle with the genre due to its sometimes self-parodying focus around energy, spontaneity and chaos. This is valid – in this production expect people to trip up, draw a blank, and impulsively word vomit without really thinking about the sounds, syllables and ideas that are coming out of their mouths. However, the Improv Actually gang truly carries every blip and blunder without fear of self-consciousness, making fun of themselves and the genre itself. It’s not rare that a cast member blurts a strange or farfetched plot twist and their counterpart turns to them and hesitantly asks ‘really?…are you sure?’ But the ensemble takes it in their stride, and these additions ultimately contribute to a heightened sense of self-awareness and meta-theatricality.
Alex O’Bryan-Tear and Marie Moullet truly stole the show, taking on audience-suggested roles of a socially awkward mathmo who works in Spoons, and a guy who involuntarily vomits up hairballs in public, in a rom-com titled ‘Imagine Them All Naked’. This Cambridge-spin allowed the audience to poke fun at ideas we’re all too well-acquainted with - like whether mathmos can handle human contact, and whether Spoons really does have standards; along with some charming mathematical puns such as “I fell in love with someone and they broke my heart, and after that, I never wanted to multiply again”. Ben Spiro, Isabella Leandersson and James Gard's performances were also fantastic as the childhood best friends and confidants, and the Spoons manager who secretly harbours a PhD; all characters were well-developed and repeatedly revisited signature jokes, a device that the illustrious Emma Plowright further deployed as a youtube scout who ‘just didn’t care’.
There were certainly awkward moments that didn’t quite work - the cast played around with a Lord of the Rings sketch at the beginning that they ultimately ditched perhaps due to lack of scope; members occasionally stumbled and allowed some silences to linger so long they became awkward - but this is all relatively routine for the genre. Overall, the performance left me reflecting on how quickly creative and novel ideas can really come out of a person’s mouth without preparation. Alex O’Bryan-Tear impressively managed to ad-lib a poem on the spot, desperately squeezing out wobbly yet hilarious couplets like “my true love died, there was no hope, I was feeling as single…as the pope”. This hot-seated artistry was further reflected in Stephen Gage’s keyboard score: which, you guessed it, is improvised.
Costuming, a.k.a a jumble-sale-esque fancy dress rack, was well-utilised - there was a point in which our protagonist was wearing a leopard-print shirt with a red bra over it. The lighting was further well timed, employed with tension-inducing dims and a couple of dramatic cuts to black. The playroom is the perfect space for a piece so dynamic that works so closely with the audience’s imagination - and to contradict the cliché, it actually didn’t feel “intimate”, it felt delightfully raucous and full.
Ultimately, the performance was highly unique. Beyond the more literal fact that the show will have an entirely different plot and characters every night, many of the internal facets of the setup are different to your standard improv production. In one short hour, an unprecedented sense of characterisation was developed, and the audience became acquainted with the protagonists and genuinely came to empathise with, and relate to, them. The troupe expertly managed to sustain a watertight narrative structure, with the piece never feeling unbalanced or as if it were veering off in a strange or unnecessary direction. Direction from Moullet and Plowright experimented with presentation, and peppered the story with dramatic scene-juxtapositions and silent montages. A spirit of cast camaraderie glowed through the group dynamic of the cast, with members sitting on the sidelines to watch each other, chucking their heads back and laughing aloud at each other’s antics. In the spirit of Valentine’s, the show will undoubtedly leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of your stomach, without being too soppy. As O’Bryan-Tear concluded in the final dialogue of the night’s romantic tale: “it might not work, and we’ll gloss over the small difficulties, but that’s what love’s about”.
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