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Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – Northern Stage, Newcastle

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

Even before coming to the attention of the general public in the 1980s with the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, improvisation has always been a staple in theatre. Showstopper! takes the noble art of making-it-up-as-you-go-along and offers something that would have most performers hiding in their dressing room: a full-length musical based entirely on suggestions from that night’s audience. They’ve been doing it for ten years and haven’t run out of ideas yet.

Reviewing such a show is difficult since the production that this is based on has already disappeared into the ether, only to survive in the memories of those who witnessed it. And what a memorable event it was! This being the show’s first visit to Newcastle, our show (the audience decided) was to be set in the largest branch of Greggs the Bakers in the world, which happens to be in Whitley Bay. Working there are two sisters who write a letter to the company’s founder Gregory G. Greggs (all statements made within the plot synopsis may not be entirely factual!) which prompts him to visit the store with his two sons who are a huge disappointment to him. This leads to love, betrayal and eventual resolution, with some bigamy and a lot of references to sausage rolls along the way. 

Setting up the show, taking the audience suggestions, and generally guiding the plot by acting as a narrator was Sean McCann: his knowledge of the musicals and most general subjects that are thrown at him impressive. As well as the setting, McCann asked for the title of the show (which became The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Pasties) as well as the names of musicals whose styles would be visited throughout the performance. This led to an ode to steak bakes in the style of Sunshine on Leith, a Rocky Horror Show inspired lesson in how to speak Geordie, a Miss Saigon style ballad, and a flashback sequence so accurately done like a song from Into The Woods that it left one wondering whether Sondheim is as talented as people say!

The five main performers were all excellent. Both Lucy Trodd and Justin Brett impressed with their extensive knowledge of North Eastern culture and spot-on Geordie accents. Susan Harrison played dual roles brilliantly, Andrew Pugsley was excellent as Mr Greggs and Philip Pellew got the biggest laughs (intentionally or not) by mixing up Whitley Bay and Whitby bay. All displayed superb vocals to match their amazing improvisational skills which meshed together so well as to give the impression that this had been rehearsed for weeks prior. Exiting and entering the stage, dividing up lines in the songs, harmonising, fitting in with what was thrown at them: everything was presented like a well-oiled machine and if the cast had any tricks to carry them through, they were certainly not visible.  Joining them on stage were the improvising musicians – the extremely talented Duncan Walsh Atkins on keys and Alex Atty on percussion. Even the lighting was brilliantly improvised!

The programme shows that this production has a larger troupe of performers and musicians in rotation. No doubt they are all excellent but it’s hard to believe that any are as good as the eight people who had the Northern Stage audience rolling in the aisles tonight. If you have the chance to catch Showstopper!, make sure you don’t let it pass you by – it’s one of the best night’s entertainment that this reviewer has had in a long time. Hilarious.

Reviewed on 17th February 2018 | Image: Geraint Lewis

Reviewer: Mark Clegg Even before coming to the attention of the general public in the 1980s with the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, improvisation has always been a staple in theatre. Showstopper! takes the noble art of making-it-up-as-you-go-along and offers something that would have most performers hiding in their dressing room: a full-length musical based entirely on suggestions from that night’s audience. They’ve been doing it for ten years and haven’t run out of ideas yet. Reviewing such a show is difficult since the production that this is based on has already disappeared into the ether, only to survive…

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