Long Players

Comedy Store improvisers get into the record books

The Comedy Store Players have entered the record books after celebrating their 25th anniversary.

Guinness World Records last night officially confirmed the show is the world’s longest-running comedy show with the same cast, and handed over an official certificate.

This is a new award from Guinness, which ruled that the continuity of the core team over the 25 years was enough for the accolade, even though there have been minor changes to the line-up.

The improv troupe was formed on October 27, 1985, following a brief test run at the Edinburgh Fringe earlier in the year with Kit Hollerbach, Dave Cohen, Neil Mullarkey and future Austin Powers star Mike Myers. In the first half of that first show they did stand-up, rather than take a chance on the new ad-libbed style imported from the States. Only 20 people were in the audience.

A month later Paul Merton joined the cast, and still regularly performs at their Sunday-night gigs. Canadian Myers and American Hollerbach taught the games to the rest of the team, which was soon joined by Mullarkey’s Cambridge friend Richard Vranch – initially as a pianist but he quickly became part of the regular team. Cohen was sacked after six months (and recently wrote this article for Chortle about those early days)

Josie Lawrence joined after guesting one night at the 1986 Edinburgh Fringe, just before Myers returned to Canada. Other regular members over the years have included Sandi Toksvig and Jeremy Hardy, while guests have included Eddie Izzard, Catherine Tate, Rory Bremner and Julian Clary.

Jim Sweeney joined the Players in 1992 and is still credited at the end of every show, although he has been unable to perform with the team for the last two years because of his multiple sclerosis. Lee Simpson and Andy Smart complete the current core line-up, which performs every Wednesday and Sunday night at the London Comedy Store.

Mullarkey has said the secret of their longevity is that, ‘we are basically a bunch of mates who turn up and make each other laugh.’

While Merton says the spontaneity of live performance compared to the rigmarole of TV is what draws him back each week. ‘If you're on the stage and you get a comic idea you just do it, you don't have to have a meeting about it, you don't have to budget it.’

Review of the 25th anniversary show

Twenty-five years the Comedy Store Players have been going; and you’ll be hard-pressed to think of many credible improv groups that have sprung up in all that time – not counting those which boast the same members.

For no one else makes it look as easy as they do. A quarter-century of honed ad-lib skills and professional camaraderie make them unassailable. With much improvised comedy, especially the student collectives that spring up every Edinburgh Fringe, the laughs come from seeing them struggle for words and jokes.

But not with the Players. There are a few minor stumbles, but it can be as slick as any scripted show. In fact, it often takes one of them to deliberately put a spanner in the works – and Paul Merton is always the prime candidate for this – to remind the audience that it is unscripted after all. People do tend to be surprisingly sceptical about the authenticity of improv, especially when it’s as apparently effortless as this.

The games never change – and many will be familiar from Whose Line Is It Anyway? – but their direction does. Sure, the same suggestions come up – there are only so many film and theatre styles; and the team must be so bored of people yelling ‘dildo’ as a household object that it’s graciously batted away – but making it seamlessly funny is a tall order.

Yet many of the scenes here – especially in the quickfire game in which contestants can yell ‘freeze’ then replace one of the actors on stage, assuming the same physical stance – are snappy one-liners any writer would be rightly proud of. But after tonight, a night just like any other for the Players despite the occasion, they will evaporate into the ether; as will the extended musical playlet about a Chaucerian badger-farmer’s wife (the loosest item of the night); the hyrda-headed explanation of monkfish lacrosse, and the incomprehensible Spanish expert on chorizo and marriage.

It helps that they can read each other so well after all these years of course, taking over well-defined roles in the group. Neil Mullarkey is the de facto leader, the upper-middle class bloke whose control freaky becomes a running joke; Merton’s the disruptive child (at one point pulling down the Comedy Store sign); Andy Smart, looking like a bedraggled Top Gear presenter, brings bold, larger-than-life performance to contrast with more restrained, but deceptively sharp-witted, everyman of Lee Simpson. Richard Vranch is more precise, contributing pithy one-liners as well as musical accompaniment when needed – which is where the unfeasibly talented Josie Lawrence comes in to her own, generating quick-witted lyrics in any style, belying her usual delightfully bewildered persona.

This show will run and run…

Review by: Steve Bennett

Published: 1 Nov 2010

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