I'M AN IMPROVISER - GET ME OUT OF HERE!
House of Improv
Michael Pilch Studio Theatre, Jowett Walk, Oxford OX1 3TS
30 January to 2 February 2019
I'm an Improviser – Get Me Out of Here! is the latest show, made up on the night as they go along, from House of Improv. The setting this time was a reality TV show along the lines of Big Brother. The contestants had been in the house for the past six weeks and now we had reached the final evening. Who would be the winner?
But first, just who were the contestants and what was the grand prize? What else would one do in an improvised show but ask the audience? So, before the show began, we all had to scribble down our suggestions and put them in a variety of hats being proffered by cast members.
The prize they were all competing for was to be President of the Moon, and the characters turned out to be Augustus (Emma Hinnells), know as 'Stus' for short. He described himself as having attended a rough, deprived, inner-city London comprehensive called Westminster School. Emma has a gift for bringing cheeky insouciance to her characters and gave us a Stus who was utterly without scruples. A memorable moment was when Stus voted out of the house Sebastian (Eliza McHugh), with whom he'd just that moment been to bed, describing the experience, while standing next to Sebastian, as 'unsatisfying'.
Sebastian the Angry Vegan, to give him his full name, was clearly someone with unresolved issues. He believed that animals were superior to humans, and vegans were superior to the rest of the human race. Eliza's characterisation of Sebastian started angry, but became more desperate and demented as the show went on. This was a ball of uncontrolled energy that raised more than a few laughs.
Then there was Jane Doe (Vidy Reddy) who had lost 'her' memory following an accident. Jane soon decided to change her name to Janice, and fell romantically for Buttercup (Kilian Lohmann), a southern belle from Georgia, USA, whose delicate, high-pitched voice turned into a sinister gravelly roar when she was roused. Kilian is a tall guy, and this clashed in a gloriously comic way with the obviously demure character of Buttercup. I enjoyed the Jekyll and Hyde nature that he brought to the part.
Steve the Dragon (Amy Kennedy) was the online handle of a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic. Steve was the geeky sort of character you'd expect, with a sympathetic naivety about him.
Dave Burns (William Jefferson) was an Australian health and safety guy, obsessed with writing lists, and clearly unable to interact socially, other than through reading out lists and making rules for everyone else. He also proved the ancient Roman adage 'nomen est omen', as he liked to burn things, a disturbing habit that William turned to fine comic use throughout the show. But even Dave found love... with Janice after her split up with Buttercup. Finally, Hannah Williams was the host and presenter of the show. She had the job of interacting with the audience and providing some structure and shape to the performance.
Before getting into the action of the last night in the house, we had a flashback to the contestants' auditions, and yet another flashback to the highlights of the past six weeks. We had the locations you'd expect in a reality show set in a house: the diary room, where frustrated contestants vented their fury at their house mates. The kitchen, where Dave Burns pinned up his list of rules. The jacuzzi, where couples looking for a bit of love action constantly had others walking in on them right in the middle of... Most inventively, there was the Moon Room, a zero-gravity chilling out space. Stus and Sebastian rigged a competitive game in the Moon Room by placing weights in the other contestants' shoes. This cheating provoked Dave Burns to burn their things on a bonfire, assisted by Buttercup, who thereby discovered the joys of pyromania. In the end, Stus became President of the Moon, his ego bloated even more by the utterly undeserved honour!
To expect a well-structured credible plot from impro is asking a bit much, so you won't get it retold by me. It also misses the point about the nature of the form: the comedy often derives from the inspiration of the moment, albeit a practised and rehearsed inspiration, and the chemistry between performers who can play to each others' strengths to produce occasional flashes of comedy magic. Well deserved pats on the back to co-directors Emma Hinnells and Hannah Williams for enabling this collaborative effort. Praise also to Matthew Kemp on keyboard who jollied the whole thing along in the manner of a silent movie accompanist.
The audience clearly enjoyed the show, which succeeded in maintaining its surreal momentum right through its hour and a quarter run. That's no mean achievement with improvised comedy. The danger with this format is that there will be a sag in the energy and inventiveness somewhere in the middle. House of Improv avoided that trap and provided some laugh-out-loud moments for the present writer and his fellow audience members.
SISTER ACT (Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner)
OXOPS (Oxford Operatic Society)
Oxford Playhouse, 11-12 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2LW
21-26 January 2019
Sister Act the musical is based on the 1992 film of the same name, starring Whoopi Goldberg, but with a lot more songs and dancing. The plot is simple enough. Night club singer Deloris Van Cartier (Katie Bedborough) witnesses crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Tim Younger) shooting a gang member whom he thinks has squealed to the police. Deloris goes to the police and tells Officer Eddie Souther ('Sweaty Eddie', played by Luke Saunders). Eddie knows Deloris from high school (where she was plain Doris), and the crush he had on her then revives. As number one witness to the killing, Deloris's life is in danger, should Curtis ever find her. On police advice, therefore, she hides in a convent, disguised as a nun until Curtis's arrest. A raunchy nightclub singer is about as different as you can get from a nun, which, of course, is the whole point: the clash of opposites. That gives us our springboard for comedy and drama.
Each of the main characters has a conflict to deal with. Doloris comes to realise that the love and support of friends (the community of the nuns) is worth more than the fame and fortune she has been pursuing as an entertainer. Sweaty Eddie leaves behind his wimpish past and becomes the hero who takes down Curtis Jackson. The Mother Superior (Marilyn Moore) is faced with the forced closure of the convent, but comes to accept that the change brought about by Deloris's arrival might offer an opportunity for the community to survive. Sister Mary Robert (Laura O'Mahony) wonders whether she really has a vocation as a nun.
Most of all, however, Sister Act is a vehicle for big musical numbers, led by the impressive voice and stage presence of Katie Bedborough and backed up by a talented company. Katie's Deloris is sassy and speaks as she finds, but is insecure deep down. If there was any criticism I would make of the production in general it would be that there could have been more of a character arc for some of the principals. Had they really been changed by their experience? One notable exception was Marilyn Moore's Mother Superior. This was a sensitively drawn character performance. The Mother Superior is not at all impressed by the changes wrought by Deloris's arrival in the convent, especially in the musical life of the community. It would have been easy to present the Mother Superior as some sort of stick in the mud, but Moore's sympathetic portrayal made me stop and think: hmm, maybe she has a point.
Luke Saunders gave us a 'nice guys come second' version of Eddie, which was well judged. After wounding Curtis Jackson and bringing about his capture, it would have been good, however, to see more of a transformation. He doesn't get the girl, but perhaps more confidence and even a little bit of swagger? Maybe something for director Dave Crewe to ponder. I was left with the impression that Sweaty Eddie really wasn't suited to his police job. Still, Saunders drew the audience's sympathy and played the comic moments well. My favourite was the number 'I Could Be That Guy' in which Eddie has three different costumes. Luke entered the scene looking a little bulkier than before. The reason soon revealed itself, as the company tore off his outer layers (a police uniform) to reveal a white and scarlet flared disco suit. This was ripped off him in turn, marking the end of the fantasy sequence and returning him to a police uniform once more.
Talking of Curtis Jackson, which I was at the start of the last paragraph, Tim Younger did a solid job at portraying the baddie, together with a remarkable pair of shiny 1970s flares. Suzannah Neal was terrific as the effervescent Sister Mary Patrick – naïve, bubbly and loving. Always looking on the bright and joyful side of things. At the opposite end of the character spectrum was Sister Mary Lazarus, the crusty old director of the convent choir. Jo Lainchbury made the most of the cameo comic moments for Sister ML that peppered the show. At odds with the Mother Superior over an unspecified choir dispute in the past, Sister Mary Lazarus embraces the changes brought by Doloris as a way of getting back at her boss. Her character arc was there for all to see. Finally, a word or two of praise for Laura O'Mahony as Sister Mary Robert, especially her solo singing performance of 'The Life I Never Led', full of doubts about whether she should progress from being a postulant to taking vows as a nun, or simply leave for another life outside the convent walls.
Compliments are due to musical director Julie Todd for some excellent vocal performances by both principals and chorus, and to choreographers Kerry Hudson and Rachel Haydon.
Dave Crewe the director can feel justly proud of a production that appears to have been playing to sell-out houses at the Oxford Playhouse. Katie Bedborough deserves full credit for her role as Deloris – a storming performance. There were enthusiastic roars of approval from the audience on the evening I attended for those musical set-pieces, delivered with a zest and energy worthy of a cast full of Sister Mary Patricks. Well done to all.
Photo credits: Simon Vail
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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