Three reviews for Student Improv Nottingham’s Route 49 @ The New Theatre

Review One by Alyce Biddle

Turning up to what I must admit was my first experience of improvised drama I had no idea what to expect. And has it happened neither did the cast. Greeted by a girl who had painted herself green and obviously taken some creative direction from Gollum, I was feeling incredibly uncomfortable about what would happen next. When I was then told to write on a piece of red paper a sin in the form of ‘Thou shalt…’ I started to panic, wondering if I were to be the one doing the improvising… Deserted by my friend for whom it was all a little bit too much, I sat down to watch this play all alone. For those not too keen on audience participation in theatre I probably won’t be recommending you this.

However I soon warmed to the performance and I am still marvelling at the speed of improvisation from the actors, and in particular the lighting and sound guys. Overtime the laughter changed from awkward discomfort to genuine amusement. Getting by far the best reception was Lottie Broomhall (the green Gollum who had greeted me) whose invasive character was literally in your face. Credit must go to the pianist (Max Grant), improvising along with the rest, whose his organ-like accompaniment really made the performance.

Despite my frank embarrassment throughout most of the hour, the play was certainly entertaining. With a less eager audience I fear it would definitely flop, but I suppose that risk element of the unknown is exactly what attracts the actors as well as those who pay to watch it.

Review Two by Evelyn Perry

For any actor, forgetting a line on stage is one of the most worrying thoughts you can have. For Student Improv Nottingham, there are no such worries. The concept of improvised comedy is as much dependent on a responsive audience as on the actors to provide good improvised scenes. It was with this trepidation that I approached my first production at the New Theatre this year.

The scene was set admirably by the musical interludes of Max Grant who provided a suitably sinister backdrop to the hell themed show. The sparse stage is to be expected for an improv show and indeed did not detract from the action, which is as much as can be hoped for with the short turnaround time.

The show was opened by Paul Schmidt’s diabolical persona. What struck false from the outset was that the compere seemed to be improvising along with the scenes. In situations dictated by the audience, hesitancy is to be forgiven, yet Schmidt appears ill at ease in the role of compere, stumbling over even simple and surely directed speeches. That said his persona and physicality are sufficiently sinister to forget this at times.

The highlight of the show is Lottie Broomhall. Her ease of audience interaction was engaging and funny. She shared good rapport with Schmidt and, most crucially in improv, managed to keep scenes ticking along, more than can be said for Schmidt.

The principal format was based on the misguided idea that audience cue cards would direct the scenes. This alternative to shouted suggestions (also used in part) fails because there is no way in which Schmidt and Broomhall can ensure their selection is funny. This may be a failure of the audience but Newall poorly handled it in preparation and this was obvious in the actors on stage.

The scenes themselves had occasional funny moments, but this reviewer could not help but feel the audience laughed because they knew the actors. They found inexplicable amusement in jokes, which relied on the basest and most menial level of wit. The actors were awkward, chuckling at each other from the back of the stage to the extent that one felt that this was observing an early rehearsal, fun in a friendly setting but far too jocular and amateur for the stage itself.

Overall S.I.N. are not a bad improv troop, nor does their show lack concepts which, maturely handled, would produce an entertaining evening. However this is marred, even destroyed, by the sheer lack of commitment to the stage persona the ‘sinners’ showed. That said, each day is different in an improv show, so pop down to the theatre and hope that you find sinners at the devil’s command not simply S.I.N.ners amusing themselves before a surplus to requirement audience.

Review Three by Mav Reynolds

For one week only the New Theatre was transformed into ‘Hell’ by Nottingham University’s Improv society for a series of performances based around the seven deadly sins. The format may be somewhat unorthodox for the regular theatre attendant. The audience is accosted in the foyer by Satan (Paul Schmidt) and his minion (Lottie Broomhall), who request commandments in the form, ‘Thou Shalt’ or ‘Thou Shalt Not’. These commandments will be broken throughout the evening by the other performers, each of whom represents one of the deadly sins. With Schmidt acting as compere, each performer has the chance to lead a scene in which we shall see them break one of the farcical commandments.

The premise of the evening is a fascinating one, almost a reconstructed performance workshop, revealing, and reveling in the naked essence of the actor’s craft. It is a task that requires impressive range, talent, speed of thought on the part of the actors and the tech crew, willing involvement from the audience and forgiveness for minor misunderstandings. It is a great opportunity to witness the transformative quality of the stage. Unfortunately for the most part it was an opportunity squandered. The sinners had to tread a narrow beam, on the one side being professional and aloof, on the other engaging the audience, encouraging them to buy into the unpolished quality, the rough beauty, of the sketches. Below this beam lies a void of ignominy, unfortunately the final end of Route 49.

On a positive note there seemed to be great understanding between the performers, and there were moments when the pairs managed to find humour and tragedy in what are, if nothing else, entirely original scenes of artistic inspiration. Of particular praise must be James Hastings for his spineless hedgehog, and the two performers in the ‘French Restaurant’ scene.

Without a doubt, the most interesting moments were found in the choreographed child of Satan sketch, where the sound and lighting were masterfully controlled by the tech crew and Max Grant, to lend a tangible quality to the mime work. Indeed it seemed as though the skits were lead less by the actors than ‘hells musician’ who was more than proficient. The commandments, more often than not, seemed a mere afterthought. Predictably, the loudest laughs were generated by the rehearsed scenes between Schmidt and Broomhall, in which sexual innuendo stood front and centre.

Unfortunately these engaging moments were sparse, especially in the entirely improvised scenes which seemingly entertained the performers alone, leaving the audience in the lamentable position of ineffectual interloper. Giggling from the row of performers that faced the audience in traverse position often found silence meeting it across the stage. The interaction with the audience, ‘banter’ if you will, was limited and not used to any great effect by Schmidt whose physical presence was not matched by his verbal prowess. More should have been made of the annihilation of the fourth wall, which was not done with the conviction required and retained a spectral existence throughout, placing the audience in a confusing limbo. One could not help feeling slightly superfluous, unnecessary, as though the only purpose for the audience member was to confer consequence upon wave after wave of irrelevant self-indulgence.

This could have been an insight into the art of performance. This reviewer however left confused, uninspired, and above all excluded. I’m afraid Improv seems to be an art form that requires a more forgiving audience than I, or a more engaging piece than ‘Route 49’.

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9 Comments on this post.
  • Bev Genolds
    8 February 2010 at 16:46
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    The trouble with trying to review an improvised piece is that, to truly get the best of it, it is an obligatory requirement to attend all performances. Otherwise you make wild accusations of ‘choreography’ and ‘rehersed scenes’.

    Also, improv is an art forrm that requires a willing audience. If you are not willing to take part, then perhaps you should stick to safer and written down pieces.

    The performers are allowed to have fun and laugh at the performances, if nothing else because they are watching it for the first time too.

    And as for an arts reviewer that cannot spell the word ‘troupe’… Perhaps your lack of understanding leads to your overall negativity towards a play directed by the audience.

  • Layla Mannings
    8 February 2010 at 17:00
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    I’d like to point out that contrary to the beliefs of the authors, there was not a single rehearsed scene in the shows.
    I’m flattered to hear that the comperes seemed so polished that they must have been rehearsed, but this is not the case at all. All the action you saw on stage was unscripted, undecided and with the exception of the structure of the play, unplanned. Neither were any of the sequences choreographed.
    I just wanted to clarify that point.

  • Dave Preston
    8 February 2010 at 17:16
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    In response to Mav Reynolds:

    ” the rehearsed scenes between Schmidt and Broomhall”

    It was an improv show consequently like the rest of the play these lines were not rehearsed.

  • Evelyn Perry
    8 February 2010 at 22:40
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    Firstly I would just like to respond to some of these criticsms of the reviews.

    It is unfounded and incorrect to suggest that one would have to attend every show in order to appreciate this. Otherwise all improv work would be immune to critical comment, which I personally find absurd.

    Secondly no, it is not okay for the actors to laugh as it exposes a consummate lack of all professionalism incongruous with any decent production.

    Apologies on suggesting it was scripted I can only wonder with awe at why one would include a director in the programme when he has no noticeable direction beyond devising the format.

    Simply put, these reviews portrayed the perspectives of two audience members. I appreciate that you responded differently but to critique the review is to suggest that imrov has one intention. If this is so. This show failed consummately. If not, this remains a matter of personal opinion.

  • Jessica Hutchings
    9 February 2010 at 00:46
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    Firstly, I completely agree that Max Grant was phenomenal at creating music on the spot and the tech was pretty much sound.

    However I notice that there seems to be a lack of knowledge about the art form of improv as it has been cast into the vat of rehearsed theatrical works. Let me elaborate in terms of this review-
    A lot more attention in the reviews tends to go towards the audience suggestions i.e. the only part of the performance decided by the audience and if I may say, perhaps by the reviewer themselves.
    Also there seems to be a lack of attention to what the crux of making Improv is: – characterisation, use of space and general performance technique, to name but a few. As the audience suggestions are variables surely more attention should go to the raw skill or absence of it? I would have liked to hear more about these and how they were expressed than about a review of the audience’s personal knack of making funny situations.

    I hope this is informative for anyone unsure, and speaking from experience, the best way to understand is to try it out!

  • Layla Mannings
    10 February 2010 at 12:36
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    It may be true that a review can be made of a performance without any understanding of the techniques behind the style, these three reviews seems to critique the technical aspects of the show in terms of traditional theatrical rules. This does not sit with an improvised show as by its very nature is does not abide by many of the rules of traditional theatre.
    Of course it would be ridiculous to suggest that you cannot assess the entertaining ability of, or audience reaction to, a show without a basic understanding of improv, however it is necessary to have a grounding in the performance style to assess its technical and stylistic devises.
    The notion of breaking ‘the fourth wall’ is an seen as a crime in most forms of theatrical performance, but in improv this wall is a hindrence to the performance and must be removed to allow the audience to become part of the show. It therefore makes sense to have the performers not only on stage, but out of character and enjoying themselves. While it is perfectly acceptable for this device to been seen as unusual or distracting by an individual, it cannot be said that it removes any profesionalism from the show because it is a device employed to reinforce to the audience the fact that there is no barrier between them and the action on stage.

    The comment about the Director simply highlights the severe lack of understanding about the workings of an improvised play. There may be no scripts, but many hours of rehearsal are still required to build up confidence and technical ability of each of the performers so that they can take any suggestion and from it make a scene.

    While our show did take place in a theatre, I would hope that the members of the audience could appreciate that it was not a traditional theatre show. It cannot be evaluated in the same way, which is largely the problem I intended to raise with the reviews. I entirely respect all three authors’ opinions on the show so I’m not in any way suggesting the reviews are invalid. I am merely highlighting the fact that many of the aspects of the show criticised by the authors would not necessarily be seen in the same negative light had they each a further understanding of the structure of an improvised show.

  • paul
    12 February 2010 at 01:37
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    i hate to say it as it well undoubtedly cause more of a kerfuffle but…

    the reviewers got it right. no matter how much the reviews themselves are picked apart or how much the reviewers knowledge of the art of improv is questioned the tone of the reviews remain true to form:

    the use of space was poor. the characterisation was awful and the scenes were amusing (in parts) at the very most.

    hence: the show was poor.

  • Mav
    12 February 2010 at 02:22
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    In answer to your request Jessica for actor based reviews – I’m afraid I don’t do them, unless by way of laudation – Otherwise I deem them to be unnecessary and hurtful.

    In response to many – though the interaction between the cast, in particular “Schmidt and Broomhall” may not have been written down or formally rehearsed it did feel as though it had been at least discussed. There was certainly more direction and confidence to these bits than the term ‘unrehearsed’ suggests. If this was the case i cannot praise the pair highly enough.

    In response to Layla – If it makes sense to have the actors out of character and enjoying themselves why were they standing in regimented position at the opening of the performance. This was one of the strongest moments of the piece and I would not suggest for a moment that it should have been done away with – But this puppet -puppet master relationship between the sinners and Schmidt that was established should have been maintained. Otherwise you should have just had the actors introduce themselves. The rule that seemed to have been established was that Schmidt and Broomhall could break this fourth wall – (which could have been done to greater effect) – and that the rest were subject to it? If this was not the case, no actor made use of this freedom for any artistic purpose.

    In response to Bev Genolds – “forrm” –

    Generally – I appreciate how difficult an art form Improv is.

  • Bev
    17 February 2010 at 16:35
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    @ Mav

    I’m not writing my comment to be published.

    It’s largely irrelevant how I spell things, so long as my point gets across.

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