Making it up as they go along

Brighton Fringe improv shows reviewed

Maybe it’s something to do with the sea air, but there seem to be rather a lot of improv shows at the Brighton Fringe, so Chortle sampled a couple, back-to-back.

Rob Broderick, a 2005 So You Think You’re Funny finalist, combines hip-hop and whimsical folk music with his spontaneous quips in Abando’man. Think Eight Mile meets Flight Of The Conchords, but a lot rougher around the edges.

His challenge is to make up narrative rap operas based, very loosely, on the lives of audience members, with aid of his guitarist. As he quizzes his subjects before the music starts, he riffs around the information, with his active imagination producing plenty of offbeat ideas to incorporate into the raps, and his banter is always lively and engaging.

The man can bust a few rhymes, if that’s the right vernacular, and often forges some smart, inspired and witty couplets. But he’s not particularly disciplined about it, and will go off telling the story, only vaguely sticking to the rhythm and neglecting the tight rhymes that define the genre.

The lackadaisical approach is part of the charm, as you see him struggle to fit his flight of fancy around the discipline the music demands. People often like to see their improvisers work hard – it proves the show unplanned – and when a good line does emerge, it’s greeted warmly.

Over nearly an hour, however, the cracks begin to show. It’s only fun to watch someone grappling with the ambitious challenge for so long, but Abando’man offers four extended rapped stories, all stylistically very similar. The entertainment value of his grasping is subject to diminishing returns – and he seems to get less inspired with time, so the genuine good lines become thinner on the ground.

But Broderick, pictured, is a very likeable performer – there’s a touch of fellow countryman Tommy Tiernan in his vigour – and not untalented at freestyle rap; though certainly not in the pros’ league either. But to sustain a full-length show needs more variety of pace and approach than is on offer here.

The Noise Next Door are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Five slick young improvisers, plus one musician, put together a pacy, professional show that starkly exposes Broderick’s shortcomings of presentation.

They’re generally not as witty as him as they race through their Whose Line Is It Anyway type games, and sometimes, especially near the start, over-reach themselves with set-ups their talents can’t match.

But for all the weak puns and missing punchlines, they easily win the audience over through the strength and tautness of their performance. With their origins in Kent University’s comedy course, the confidence with which they own the stage is compelling, and when they start to hit their stride, no one can fail to be engaged by the vivacious sense of fun. With the songs, especially, their skills come to the fore. They sound like proper tracks – even if the words sometimes belie the improvised nature.

Most the rounds are variations on familiar themes: guessing what quirk your colleague has, building up sentences one word at a time, that sort of thing. A couple of these are set up clumsily, such as the people arriving in purgatory, which means some clarity is lost. But the audience are eager to chip in with suggestions, which often raise a laugh in themselves.

One unusual game that worked very well involved the team posing as one punters’ family, with her giving approval whenever they happened upon a true personality trait. Another original around, involving a puppet, was less successful and more gimmicky.

For the Brighton Fringe, the team – Tom Houghton, Charlie Granville, Matt Grant, Tom Livingstone, Sam Pacelli and musician Sam Howes – have straddled themselves with the unncessary handicap of doing one ‘clean’ and one ‘dirty’ show a night. Chortle saw the former, but they couldn’t help but stray into adult territory now and then – but why not? The show started at almost 10pm, making the PG-rated ambitions redundant.

There’s a bit of work to be done on making sure the direction of some of the games is more clearly plotted, and they do struggle with finding anything but the most obvious gags in a scenario, but everyone performs with such vigour that an enjoyable show is guaranteed.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Brighton Fringe, May 2008

Published: 14 May 2008

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