2013: An Improv Odyssey

Mon 4th March 2013


Ashley Chhibber

at 05:55 on 5th Mar 2013



Revealing the plot of an improv show hardly spoils the experience. Following a run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and another in the King’s Bunker, the Impronauts finished with a show at the Corpus Playroom: the only theme constant throughout was that of sci-fi and space travel. In this particular performance, First Mate Donna Kitching of the HMS Margaret Thatcher and Mark ‘the Pizza Boy’ OBT (Alex O’Bryan-Tear) attempt to set up a naked disco but are thwarted by the S&M branch of the Catholic Church, then clash once again over OBT’s plan to destroy Earth with Jupiter’s moons – the cast could only name two – in an act of ‘double penetration’. So far, so surreal. The scenario arose from a healthy mix of audience suggestions and throw-away jokes which were then extended; it was all clearly improvised, however, with no reliance on set pieces or props. The cast were particularly adept at taking on board each other’s suggestions for plot direction and, despite the differing ideas of the multiple contributors, it generally cohered.

Alex Klein and Jaime Auron were initially very good at warming up the audience, throwing out chocolates liberally; unfortunately, this made it all the more noticeable when the main compere, Chris Smowton, proved far less engaging. Klein in particular remained willing to step in and instigate scene changes when he felt there was more comic material elsewhere, but Smowton was perhaps too keen to move on before giving scenarios a chance and sometimes caused the pace to drop considerably. In fairness, Smowton didn’t have much chance to show his compering skills: many improv shows use games to keep the action fresh, and this is where a compere comes to the fore, but An Improv Odyssey worked without these. This is a perfectly valid choice to make, but more variety would have ensured the piece never became too plot-heavy at the expense of laughs, a problem which arose once or twice. The variety introduced through the medium of song was particularly successful, especially the contribution made by O’Bryan-Tear; but even this was only used twice over the course of an hour-long show.

Although one or two of CJ Donnelly’s ‘terrible’ puns really hit the mark, many were too obscure to have any impact; yet it should be noted that the final denouement relied upon a set-up which she introduced, albeit in a slightly confusing manner. A culture clash between the audience and some of the cast members – those from Canada or the United States – was unfortunately very noticeable, one of the main risks of improvised comedy: on the one hand, American fraternity culture, references to which Smowton tried to suppress; on the other, the rich material of Margaret Thatcher puns mystified half of the cast members and thereby ended up disrupting the flow of the comedy. Of course, some humour completely transcends national boundaries, and the piece was laden with fantastic innuendos; special mention goes to Alan Beaumont who, in character as a lecherous priest, occasionally popped up to make sure an accidental dirty joke did not go unnoticed, always eliciting plenty of laughs.

Unfortunately, general points open to criticism can be captured much more easily than the one-off jokes and scenarios which ensured that the audience kept laughing. The intricacies of the plot virtually scream ‘unique’, which is the most crucial thing about improvised comedy. Where else can you find a show featuring Margaret Thatcher attempting to suckle her long-lost son, or which culminates in Jesus Christ being stripped to his boxer shorts in the middle of a song? There were certainly moments of pure brilliance scattered throughout the show, and some of the cast were very strong; yet even for improvised comedy, this should have been far more polished. The dynamism and quick minds of the Cambridge Impronauts work to create a show impossible to recreate. Yet despite the strength of individual comedic instances, the piece as a whole seemed to have too little structure and control. The comedy itself was generally successful, but when the thinking about their next show the Impronauts certainly have room for improvement. Nevertheless, the Impronauts are, and will no doubt continue to be, as worth watching as ever.


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