Review Mission Improv-able

Eddie Millett 7 May 2014

‘Mission Improv-able’ carries on in the vein of last term’s ‘The Importance of Being Improvised’ smash-hit, this time reworking the spy genre for the small L-shaped stage of The Corpus Playroom.

To those who have had the good fortune to see The Cambridge Impronauts in action before, their formula can be dazzlingly effective, appearing both completely off-the-cuff and amazingly controlled at the same time. The whole thing is carried off with a charming self-awareness, even awkwardness, that is difficult to pin down.

Key to great improv is total audience immersion, so that the ridiculous nature of the set-up is forgotten in the ridiculousness of the plot, and our narrator and compère for the evening, Alex O’Bryan-Tear, did his best to deliver. Channelling his inner Neo with a greased mane and dark square sunglasses, he hushed the audience of the Playroom in conspiratorial tones. To the Impronaut initiand, much of the humour lies in knowing of the bizarre events likely to unfold, but the resonably full audience largely seemed not to be expecting the audience-participation that was demanded.

A location, an object, a movie to riff on: these are the basic fare of the Impronauts, but the prologue fell rather flat with some lame suggestions from an audience caught off-guard. Yet Neo (O’Bryan-Tear) persevered, and following a textbook opening action sequence involving Julie Andrews and some anonymous henchmen skiing down Snowdonia, the plot moved to the Australian outback and a vague Jason Bourne set-up, where villains were looking to get their hands on a top-secret boomerang with grave consequences for Capitalism in the face of the dark forces of Communism.

In many ways, the spy-thriller genre lends itself well to improv comedy, because the mass of terrible action-flicks out there are ideal for self-parody through allusion to the themes and visual gags that toy with the genre itself. Here I feel the Impronauts failed to make the most of the genre-bending opportunity they had set up for themselves. I was desperate for more outrageous Bond one-liners and Sean Connery lip chewing, fewer jokes about Australians being racist conservatives. That being said, there were a couple of excellent running gags, including the classic Communist world-takeover and a number of ridiculous fight-sequences, all set to Marcus Martin’s commendable, versatile, vaudeville-piano soundtrack. The top of the Sydney Opera House made for a fittingly mad final showdown between brainwashed Australian commies and a cut-glass accented, conglomerate-owning capitalist.

In many ways, The Corpus Playroom compliments the on-the-hoof nature of improv: watching the actors grab miscellaneous props and work them into the plot allows the audience to truly witness these comic minds as they work. I particularly enjoyed the untimely arrival of an opera student to claim his rehearsal room from the dark forces of international communism, and a helicopter dog-fight over Ayers Rock that threatened to fall into the laps of the front row. 

Once you buy into the madness of what you are witnessing, the erratic nature of the plot cannot fail to drag you along. However, while there were some outstanding individual performances, and genuinely funny moments, all too often it seemed that the troupe lacked a sense of ensemble, of comic unity and cohesion, which is key to truly brilliant improv.

Tellingly, one of the biggest laughs of the night was generated by an audience member; when asked whether the forces of capitalism or communism should prevail, she piped up with ‘Anarchism!’, which Alan Beaumont, a real standout as the collected-yet-resigned secret agent with the dubious Aussie accent, faced down with a comment about there being 'no place for the Deus Ex Machina in spy thrillers'.

In all, an enjoyable show with some promising individual performances and masses of comic potential for the spy genre, but let down by a lack of comic cohesion among the troupe. As Peter Lunga promised in the closing number ‘I’ll do better tomorrow night, that’s my plan’.

Improv is a fiendishly difficult and unique type of theatre, and the Impronauts have demonstrated their dazzling brilliance in the past, but, like a foiled evil mastermind, their escape pod didn’t quite fly tonight.