Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – Garrick Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

 We all knew it! Theatre can save the world and turn us into better people and now there is a musical to prove it. For one night only at the newly reopened Garrick Theatre the world premiere of A Change of Direction, a dazzling new musical theatre show about the devastating effects of the pandemic on a group of out of work actors whose secret act of ‘terrorist theatre’ performed on the streets of London creates a ricochet of positive social change around the world.

Except this not real a show, the entire thing was made up on the spot by the cast of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical who join a series of variety acts taking over the Garrick Theatre for a comedy repertory season over the next few weeks. The premise is a simple one; find a setting, add three performance styles or well-known shows and a title, then let Andrew Pugsley, Adam Meggido, Pippa Evans, Ali James and Justin Brett let their imaginations run free.

The genius of Showstopper! is knowing that you can always be upstaged by the audience, so prompted to text or tweet scenario ideas and styles throughout, the crazy suggestions come thick and fast. Democracy decides the best three and on press night a gentleman’s club admitting ladies for the first time and a future history class were defeated by the concept of a group of unemployed actors unable to hide their staginess in new roles – and it feels entirely appropriate that this most theatrical of stories is the subject of the Showstopper! return to the stage.

Structurally, what ensues is a full musical in which the cast members create the story together building up to some kind of resolution and musical finale, only no one knows what that will be until it happens. At various points the chair Dylan Emery introduces a meta pause so as lob in a new audience-suggested plot point or variation to the musical approach which at this performance combined The Rocky Horror Show, The Lion King and Hamilton as well as a bit of Sondheim, Six and The Phantom of the Opera.

Showstopper! is a mix of improvised dramatic scenes and as many songs as the company can fit in, most of which are group numbers to share the inventive load. You quickly realise how many musical songs are comprised of the same lines sung on repeat, allowing one member of the cast to introduce a chorus sequence or dance move which the others quickly adopt or embellish, and a new song is born. The snowball effects of their ideas veers slightly away from the original concept but no one minds in the least when it’s this entertaining.

The responsiveness of the cast to one another is always impressive, picking up quickly on cues and notions to shape and grow the story, taking it in hilarious new directions. Meggido is particularly funny as a revered but bitchy theatre knight reduced to taking a role at a fast-food drive thru before reassembling his old students for an Avengers-style attempt to save theatre. Evans offers a contrasting Maxine Peake-like social realist actor who takes it all very seriously, Brett and Pugsley are the brilliant students with no transferable skills for the real world while James eventually gets her own number as the forgotten member of the group.

Our made-up, one night only musical has a romance plot or two, flashback sequences, memory songs, topical references, an audience sway-along and plenty of flair. And next week the show will be entirely different. Musical theatre has been most responsive to the restrictions of the pandemic and in just 80 or so minutes Showstopper! is a wonderful celebration of this most creative of genres.

Runs until  22 March 2021

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