House of Improv
Michael Pilch Studio Theatre, Jowett Walk, Oxford OX1 3TS
17-20 October 2018
Mention impro to most audiences and they will think of short-form pieces lasting a few minutes, centred around a single idea - in other words, improvised sketches. House of Improv boldly goes into the less widely explored realms of long-form impro – in this case a 70-minute show with no interval, based entirely on suggestions made by that evening's audience. The words 'pants', 'seat', and 'flying' spring to mind. That approach can be both terrifying and liberating for the performers, and entertaining for the audience. But it can also have some potential drawbacks, of which more below. Some of last night's audience had watched long-form impro before. For me, it was a new experience, and I'm happier for having seen it.
House of Improv are seven performers led, if that's the right word, by director-producers William Jefferson and Sofia Castello y Tickell. The first ten minutes of Family Secrets had Will and Sofia making introductions and warming up both cast and audience with plenty of shouty interaction. The audience was asked to call out suggestions for the story, centred around the basic premise of a family saga of some sort. Then we all had to cheer loudly for our favourite.
The result was a story about the Woofingtons, a family of dog trainers, who were facing a crisis with the impending trial of a family member. The story then unfolded in a series of two- and three-handed scenes, to musical accompaniment by Christopher Magazzeni.
We met Josh Woofington (William Jefferson), who was accused of stealing a dog. Although Josh protested his innocence, it soon became apparent that he had previous form and was a regular guest of Her Majesty's. A nice running gag was the discovery, by other family members, of dogs stolen by Josh hidden in cupboards, kitchen units and bins all over the house. William reminded me facially of a young George Cole, and Josh had a geezer-ish quality to him that grew more dodgy and shameless as the show went on.
Lord Woofington (Emma Hinnells), Josh's grandfather, was a famous lawyer, specialising in canine legal cases and jealous of his professional status. It was his job to defend Josh in what appeared to be an increasingly hopeless case. A lovely bit of impro turned into a running gag was Lord Woofington's habit of 'reading some law' in Latin to whoever happened to be in the room at the time. This was given a further twist later when it was revealed that Lord Woofington's wife Bernadette (Eliza McHugh) got an erotic kick out of it. Indeed it revived their flagging marriage. I was impressed by Emma's good comedy sense and strong stage presence. She projected a winsome knowingness that put me in mind of a young Sheila Steafel or Helen Lederer (that's praise indeed, by the way).
Professional rival to Lord Woofington was Joan (Sofia Castello y Tickell) the other lawyer in the family. Joan was one of the principal characters driving the story along - a pacemaker to keep the energy up. An inspired bit of impro came when the two lawyers competed for status by standing on chairs during a business meeting, each trying to be the tallest. Later in the show, Joan developed a crush on Sarah (Hannah Williams), much to the delight of Lord Woofington.
Kilian Lohmann played Matthew, one of the grown-up children of the Woofington family, bringing to the show a nice sense of comic timing and quietly understated humour.
Bernadette (Eliza McHugh) was skittish and kooky (her word), turning into an elderly eccentric in the second half of the show, dressed in a sparkly emerald green raincoat. Eliza's double act with her stage husband (Emma Hinnells as Lord Woofington) started to blossom towards the end of the show, and I would have liked to have seen more of this earlier on, as it was one of the characterisation highlights of the piece for me.
Daughter Sarah (Hannah Williams) was played as a stereotypical soap-opera heroine, overwhelmed by her emotions and worries about the family. If there was a sympathetic character amongst the oddballs of the Woofington family, then Sarah was it.
Josh's sister Beatrice (Amy Kennedy) was by turns guilt-ridden and empathetic, and Amy proved herself a quick-thinking performer.
Credit also to Vidy Reddy for some nifty lighting changes on the fly.
Family Secrets started and finished strongly, but experienced a dip halfway through. After about 40 minutes, the scenes started to get a little stale and bogged down, and the story needed to be moved forward. In the final 15 minutes, with the need to wrap up the show into some sort of conclusion, the plot took off again with a series of 'I'm Spartacus!' moments. First Bernadette then Beatrice offered to take the blame for the dog theft and go to prison in Josh's place. Finally, a piece of video tape evidence of Josh's misdemeanours came into the hands of Joan and Lord Woofington. A family meeting was called and Bernadette's dog urinated to order on the video tape, destroying all evidence of the crime.
House of Improv's aim was to perform a 70-minute piece – a tall order for a wholly improvised show. Impro combines the functions of actor and playwright in one person at the same time, and that presents a mighty challenge. The performer has to remain 'in the moment', yet plotting and characterisation require a stepping back from the action. This tension between process and content is often resolved in the relative neglect of the plot line. In this case, the show thankfully received a kick in the pants about 15 minutes from the end and the piece took flight again, ending on a high note. The audience on the night clearly enjoyed the show, as did I.
Impro is very hard to do, never mind do well. These performers, we were told, had been doing it for less than a year, and did extraordinarily well. Congratulations to all concerned.
Photo credits: Amrita Khandpur
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.
Please use the Contact Form for anything apart from comments on blog posts.