The confidential atmosphere of the ADC’s Larkum Studio was an ideal location for the open rehearsal of CUMTS’ Improvised Musical. The evening was based around ideas pitched by the enthusiastic audience (a few members in the front especially), and began with a series of warm-ups, of which the most entertaining was the “Singing Hairdresser”: the cast took it in turns to play a hairdressee with a problem, and the hairdresser that solves it. This led to some brilliant off-the-cuff lines, such as Emily Burns advising a customer who’d lost their keys to get a copy from “a certain man stalking you, then get back in your house and call the police.”, or Sam Rayner’s character, having his horse and, being offered a mint to make him feel better, commenting, “I thought there was going to be a polo pun there somewhere but there wasn’t.”
Then the real performance began, an engaging, ludicrous, no-holds-barred performance of Soggy Parcels, a rousing comedy set in a post office under the sea, featuring the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney, which somehow manages to retain the snazzy theatrical sheen that one associates so strongly with musicals, thanks to an extremely professional cast.
Sam Rayner speaks intently about the process. “The thing that’s really special about this is that there’s so much ownership of it for such a brief amount of time. With a musical, you’ll get the script, you’ll have it written down, you’ll learn it all – it’s someone else’s words but you’re learning it over a long, long period of time, getting it perfect and performing it. Brilliant. And you’re done, and it’s all that work, and it goes. Whereas with this – it’s like you practise the theory, get the idea right – and then bang – you’re out there – bang – you make it up – lyrics on the spot, music on the spot, and before you know it, you’re done and you’re like, this was mine. I made it and it took me half an hour. I could have done a musical in three months, but I did this in half an hour. We did this in half an hour. And it’s just that real kind of buzz. It’s that adrenaline, it’s that are you going to sink or swim.”
The cast provide a fascinating insight into the experience and technicalities of improvisation. “There are occasionally little problems,” Matt Friett explains. “Like people speaking with their back to you. I mean, they’re performing to the audience which is fine, but then you can’t hear what they’re saying, so you miss key elements of the plot!”
Once Walt Disney has been brought back to life, stolen birthday presents replaced, and a happy ending achieved for all, it is not only the cast that are perceptibly fizzing with energy after the show, but also Jeff Carpenter, the “director and piano man”: “I’m slightly shaky because I’m so happy and excited after doing it. It’s very intensive during it because you have to be thinking the whole time and you have to be focused the whole time and I mucked up a few things today for which I’m annoyed at myself, but overall it was good.” A sense of driven perfectionism comes across easily. The audience have barely finished leaving before he and the cast members are dissecting the performance, in preparation for the real run in Lent, which will take place at the Corpus Playroom. They discuss experimenting with freeing up the rigid structure. “It has to be very very good, so we still have ways to improve to make sure people in the audience really enjoy it.”
Some of the cast have experience from doing it once before. Matt Friett, Emma Powell, and Emily Burns returned for more after having taken part in the first Improvised Musical last year. Jeff took part as an actor last year, but despite his thorough enjoyment of the experience, he insists he is more suited to and prefers his pianist role.
Jeff recalls his surprise last year at the overwhelmingly positive response they received – despite limiting publicity to Facebook, the event sold out several days in advance, and the cast were feeling the pressure. They were delighted with its success. This year, they are aiming for an even higher standard.
“Of course it feels so different when you do improvising by yourselves, and then in front of an audience. One of the wonderful things is that it’s never the same two nights in a row. I mean tonight we’re under the sea, tomorrow we might be in space, next week we’ll be in Walrus World again.”