Director: Adam Meggido
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
Seek to describe Improvathon 2016, and numbers come easier than words. 50 hours’ continuous improvised comedy. 25 two-hour episodes across four “seasons”. Ninth annual event. More than 40 performers. An audience in their seats from 7pm on Friday to 9pm on Sunday. They do let you out if you ask nicely.
This year’s Improvathon is set on board Agatha Christie’s Orient Express. If you don’t think you could hack 50 hours of murder mystery then don’t fear as neither genre nor rails can limit this train, which swims, flies, finds out bridges from Madagascar to New Zealand, lays tracks through the Kalahari Desert and even jumps into Outer Space.
And while there are a couple of traditional murders in the first season, the next 40ish hours spiral gloriously out of bounds and love, sex, death, demonic possession and talking dogs are all coal to the furnace of the onward-powering Express.
In the meta-theatrical driver’s seat (the actual driver is a laconic wife-killing Frenchman called Jean-Baptiste) is director Adam Meggido, creator and veteran of the London Improvathon and world-record holder for the longest stretch of directing continuous improv. He clocked up 55 hours in Toronto, apparently, so this weekend must be a piece of cake.
A sort of theatrical Dungeon Master, Meggido introduces the performers for their cameos at the start of each episode then calls up a selection of them for a scene, winds them up with a motive and lets them run.
He’s skilled in throwing in impossible-sounding challenges for his improvisers, from hymns in perfect unison to playing a scene entirely in Spanish, eliciting gleeful giggles from the audience which morph into astonished clapping as the cast pulls it off.
The cast (a word which doesn’t really do them justice: there isn’t a cast list and people come and go and change character and die and revive with a hallucinogenic fluidity which makes it hard to keep track) brings together a schiltron of actors, comedians and luvvies in general, from the top to the bottom of their game, but mostly the top.
There’s some fantastic talent on display. It seems spurious to pick favourites, given the take-my-hat-off-to-you physical effort involved in just staying the course of the event, but we’re treated to some masterful improv, from the unflappable suavity of Mark Meer and Dylan Emery, to the implausible comic energy that Kory Matthewson and Donovan Workun bring to their Back To The Future double-act whenever they hit the stage.
Workun deserves an Improv Oscar for the funniest comedy moment of the whole event: I didn’t expect to be howling with laughter forty-six hours into Improvathon, but a bit of happy hysteria sure does wake you up.
And it would be worth staying just to see the vicissitudes of everyone’s favourite Christie detectives, Poirot (Justin Brett) and Miss Marple (Ruth Bratt), work through to a sequin-y happy ending.
Brett, Bratt and a core of the cast members are veterans of “Showstopper! The Improvised Musical”, and it really shows: the songs, accompanied seamlessly by musicians Richard Baker and Chris Ash, are some of the stand-out moments of the night, with love duets, Disney solos and whole-cast extravaganzas. Twenty bleary-eyed audience members blink up from their sleeping-bags at 5am on Sunday morning to take in a “Welcome to New York” montage so good it feels pre-rehearsed: talk about pearls before swine.
When Improvathon ends at 9pm on Sunday, and we finally stumble from the Lost Theatre into the (relative) light of day, it feels like leaving home: the full 50 hours is a rite of passage, for audience as well as actors, that you’ll not soon forget.
Go buy your ticket for 2017. I’m going back to bed.
To catch up on Edie’s adventures over the 50 hours, check The Reviews Hub Twitter feed for pictures and tweets from across the weekend