Director: Lee Simpson
Four actors, two puppeteers, and four musicians assemble on the stage of the Hackney Empire, with an array of props and a big multi-level thing with steps and doors sitting centre stage on a revolving platform. They take some suggestions from the audience – a theme, a location, a significant word, a situation. Then for 90 minutes they spin these elements into a (possibly) coherent piece of musical theatre.
Josie Lawrence and Ruth Bratt are wonderful. Fast on their feet, generous with ideas, they pick up cues from the musicians to craft pretty good songs on the fly. They sometimes manage to inject some real feeling into their situations, and they are always energetic and funny. Niall Ashdown is less dynamic, but supports Lawrence and Bratt ably, aces a lot of jokes, and is an especially notable exploding duck.
Other cast members seemed to be having an off night. Cues are ignored, the action slows to a crawl to allow extended, not very convincing, mimed tea making, and the basic rules of improvisation, to respond to suggestions and to keep sequences flowing, are ignored. It puts a lot of pressure on Lawrence and Bratt to keep things running smoothly. It’s a soufflé of a show, and it doesn’t bear a lot of sitting back and thinking about stuff; the audience needs to be kept amused and in the moment. Stopping to let the puppeteers (Aya Nakamura and Clarke Joseph-Edwards) have their time in the lime light is also a brake on the onrushing laughs, but they do create creatures out of random objects, which is entertaining, and their duckling made out of a collection of tea cups is a wonder to behold.
It seems mean to dwell on things that work less well, but the entire edifice of the show rests on speed, actors riffing off each other’s notions, grabbing opportunities for laughs, for moments. If the audience spends too long looking and thinking, the show collapses into piffle.
That doesn’t happen, because Josie Lawrence and Ruth Bratt put in heroic shifts to keep the funnies coming. They are both so good, their empathy is so apparent, and they carry the evening. Shows built around improvisation are always on the verge of falling apart; it’s the high-wire excitement of watching performers haul them back from the brink of disaster that makes them worth watching. This show provides those thrills in abundance, and also features excellent support from the musicians as the Lawrence-Bratt duo create humour and pathos and improv magic.
Runs until 26 October 2022