Showstoppers! (Online review)

Showstoppers! (Online review)

“Every night is a premiere”.  So runs the strapline of the well-known musical improvisers called Showstoppers who, over the last decade, have become something of a phenomenon playing at the Edinburgh Festival, in the West End and on Radio 4. While the basic premise remains the same  – struggling musical writer needs help to meet a fast approaching deadline and asks for audience suggestions – the results are always different. If you ever used to marvel at the five minute musical segments on Whose Line Is It Anyway? then running a full-length piece, as they do, will probably astound you.

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West End Theatres closed down on March 16th. One of the shows affected was Showstoppers then appearing at the Lyric. Disappointed they may have been but before they packed up and went home the troupe went into a spontaneous broadcast now accessible on Facebook as Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Possibly this was the last live show in London before the pandemic swept through, so its quite a historic moment to have captured. The team take live suggestions from Instagram and Twitter followers to improvise a short musical with their usual flair and panache. In this instance it’s a simple tale about the islanders of Haggisfree, an island off the Scottish mainland where making shortbread and playing the bagpipes are the regular activities indulged in by the locals. The focus is on a family of islanders who may or may not have travelled from Ireland (at least, that’s how the wandering accents are accounted for) and the convoluted relationships that have developed. Along the way they tackle styles derived from Hamilton, Chicago and the works of Sondheim. The spontaneity of the piece is captured in a similarly spontaneous fashion via mobile phone cameras, meaning that quality is not great but, in this instance, who cares? The verve and invention of the group in the most trying of circumstances is testament to the spirit of theatre; a last defiant hurrah before everything went dark.

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More substantial but (unless you are very quick) less available is Showstopper! The (Socially Distanced!) Improvised Musical. Premiered as a live event and then available on video for just 48 hours this follows the usual pattern taking suggestions from the audience during the live version via a chat function; those watching get to dictate plot twists, styles of song and even the title of the piece which, of course, will never be performed again. The storyline here is of a hot air balloon flight, time travel and shifting relationships. It’s best not to probe the logic of the narrative which quickly falls apart under scrutiny but, in any case, that’s not really the point. It is the constant invention across nearly two hours that astonishes. That and the pastiche songs covering Hamilton, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Boyfriend among others. The best two songs both come in the second half with Les Mis’s instantly recognisable “Look Down” refrain being transposed to “Up and Away” and a song about the new American President (Trump has gone to meet his maker) gloriously done in the style of The Muppet Show.

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The cast of four (Pippa Evans, Ruth Bratt, Adam Megiddo and Justin Brett) are on top form sparking off each other as they would do on stage. In fact, in this instance they are socially distanced in individual perspex booths but at least they are all in the same room, in each others’ eyeline and able to pick up on the subtle hints and gestures which power this type of performance.  Megiddo, in particular, is on fine form and really finds the emotion in some of his songs. There are some rudimentary costume pieces available to the quartet – headgear is so important in online theatre – which they use to bring in some extra characters as the improvisation progresses. Andrew Pugsley acts as genial ringmaster fielding the suggestions and the two person mask wearing band of Duncan Walsh Atkins on keyboards and Alex Atty on percussion provide sterling support to the performers. The musicians in particular are so adept at picking up cues and providing suitable underscoring that in many ways they are the stars of the show.

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There is an intriguing short feature in the interval about how this iteration of Showstoppers! has been put together and it is clear from this that there are a number of unrecognised “back room” staff who make the show work. I was particularly intrigued by how the camera operator(s) keep up with it all, cutting from one performer to another with (mostly) consummate ease and making it all look quite rehearsed. If I’m being fully honest I did find the show a trifle overlong – I think anything over 90 minutes is overstretching the premise – but the wonder of how it is done outweighs this minor misgiving and it was obvious from the chat that there are plenty of audience members who would disagree with me. The team are known for their innovation skills and, it seems, have bought the same level of invention to staging their shows as they do to their actual performances. They promise to be doing more in the future so that’s worth keeping an eye out for. In the meantime be quick if you want to catch this – blink and you’ll miss it!

Group photo by Hugo Glendenning

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is available via Facebook. Click here

Showstopper! The (Socially Distanced!) Improvised Musical is available via Eventbrite (but only until 22.00 today) Click here

Also available

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical Live At the Edinburgh Festival which consists of two separate shows (known as Tent! and Starving!) and are available to rent via Vimeo. Click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

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