On this particular afternoon, as suggested by the audience, The Understudies named their fully improvised musical Greenhead and Her Travels. By some miracle, the musical – which opened with an argument between two members of a cult commune over which is the best plant-based milk, moved on to the tragic backstory of the cult’s grand master (who just so happened to be a man-sized cat), and involved the harnessing of slug cream from the nipples of a slug farmer – managed to come full circle and deliver a story that was just about what its title had promised. This feat seemed to shock the players as much as it did the audience.
Improvised theatre has taken the Fringe by storm in recent years, embodying the essence of the festival itself: unpredictable, innovative, experimental. No two performances are ever the same – a blessing for some shows and a curse for others. The Understudies is, unfortunately, a classic case of improv gone awry, cursed by the very nature of the genre. It would be misleading to say that theatrical improvisation isn’t an incredibly difficult skill to master, especially in the case of The Understudies which aims each night to pull an entire musical – story, songs and all – out of thin air. The actors deserve kudos not only for undertaking such an ambitious task but for their impressive ability to continue the narrative without uncomfortable silences while they thought of what to say next.
Although the narrative was well-managed, the awkward coordination of comic timing between the actors robbed their back-and-forth of much of the naturally-flowing humour that characterises improvised theatre. This was not helped by the fact that almost all the scenes involved pairs of the six actors and the pairings did not always bounce off each other – perhaps on another night, they would have combined more harmoniously. The exceptions to this were Horner and Coldstream, who embraced their double-act as West Country slug cream merchants, confident in the knowledge that it was absolutely ridiculous. It was impossible not to laugh as they spiralled further and further into the absurd.
It is a pity that despite being a musical, The Understudies’ music left an awful lot to the imagination. In solo songs, it was evident that each of the six actors was strong singers. Unfortunately, when they sang together, it ceased to matter that such lovely voices were at play. With everyone trying their utmost to lead the charge in volume, and lyrical gags, the songs fell flat. Their on-the-spot harmonies stumbled and fell on multiple occasions, and the actors frequently couldn’t remember refrains they had invented moments ago – forgivable mistakes if laughed off, but with the actors furtively glancing back and forth in horror at their errors, it was inevitable that they drew much more attention to them than they ought have. heir accompanying pianist deserves a special mention for the skilful way he prompted the segues from spoken narrative to sung, picking some amusing and opportune moments to begin playing and picking up the pace when the show began to slow down.
The Understudies may not be the best show of its ilk, but it retains some laugh-out-loud moments. All in all, it is an excellent concept in need of a polish: it is imperative that improvised theatre is relaxed and confident even in its mistakes, and a few deep breaths by the actors would have alleviated some of the anxiety that permeated the show.
Bedlam Theatre – Venue 42
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Image: The Understudies