Tragedy Plus Time – The Free Association, London

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Director: Simon Lukacs

There’s something singularly concerning about the prospect of improvised comedy. The tension of a theatrical setting is enough already even with the safety net of a script or prepared routine – add to that the mandate to make people laugh and it can feel like a very trepidatious situation. As tonight proves, however, it can also be a joy to behold.

The premise of Tragedy Plus Time is to use the tragic tales of two of the group as bases for improvised sketches performed by the group as a whole. We are warned that these tales will be sad and potentially triggering, and that only the tellers of the tales know the content in advance. It immediately raises questions about what can be used as comedic material. Where does laughing at someone’s grief or trauma cross the line and become harmful rather than, as they hope, healing? It further raises the stakes for the risky business of live improv.

The first story concerns the death of the speaker’s grandmother. It’s a touching, personal meditation on the “endgame” of a person’s life, with vivid details ranging between the poignant and the ridiculous. As soon as he finishes, the rest of the seven-person cast, which includes special guest Rufus Hound, immediately steps into comedy mode with a skit involving a selfish griever worried about how the death of a loved one will affect their preparation for Edinburgh Festival.

The performers alternate in small groups, guided by the cues of a lighting change. Each sketch builds on the themes and characters of the previous ones, always relating back to subtle details of the tragic tale. It’s quite astounding how in tune these performers are with each other. At times it seems like the sketches have been pre-written, and indeed they’re often better than much scripted comedy. It becomes clear pretty quickly that we’re in very safe comedy hands here. Each performer plays their part. There is no dead air. Not one joke — or line, even — falls flat.

The second tragic tale comes from Hound and it deals with the pressures of being a struggling comedian during the pandemic, the breakdown of his marriage and his subsequent ADHD diagnosis. The tale inspires some of the group’s best character comedy with one sketch featuring Bob Cratchit trying to monetise Tiny Tim’s various ailments to kickstart his stand-up career, with two characters watching the resulting viral TikTok in the next scene. It’s fantastically imaginative, and the fact that it’s all done seamlessly on the fly is near miraculous.

It could be said that in some ways, this is safer improv than when it’s based on words chosen at random from the crowd, for instance, because the tales themselves are laced with plenty of jokes to expand upon. And perhaps it could be argued that the line of where comedy can safely go could have been pushed further. But this barely diminishes the immense skill on display here. It’s comedy improv at its finest.

Runs until 8 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Improv at its finest

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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