I first saw improvised comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in 1978, when the Omelette Broadcasting Company wowed audiences with their quick-fire wit and ability to riff on audience suggestions. Improv has been a staple of the comedy theatre circuit ever since, and it takes a leap of imagination to turn it into something more than just a random collection of sketches.
St Doctors Hospital refreshes the genre by setting the action within an American hospital soap opera. At the start of the evening one audience member is quizzed on their job and interests, and it’s their revelations that spark the hour-long show.
The Free Association is both a theatre company and an acting school specialising in improv, and so the cast will vary from night to night as new recruits are given the opportunity to try out their comedic chops in front of a live audience.
The comedy is frantic, inventive and frequently hilarious. The performers take delight in misinterpreting each other’s actions: when a doctor is miming performing surgery, another doctor takes the virtual scalpel away with the explanation that you can’t operate with cafeteria spoons. Later, a doctor in the cafeteria complains at having to eat with scalpels – a neat, satisfying callback.
There is, naturally, a lack of overall structure to the evening, and while it does build to a sort of climax there isn’t the sense of a satisfying ending. But when the script is being devised by six disparate actors in real time, perhaps that’s not surprising.
But the gags come thick and fast: the cardiothorassic surgeon who wants to work from home; the English patient whose stiff upper lip has ‘gone all wibbly wobbly’; the financier who has to pledge to build a new wing by the following day. The rapid-fire, laugh-out-loud material had the audience in stitches for the whole hour, as the talented cast develop ever more surreal scenarios on the hoof.
It’s a successful and worthwhile night and one that proves improv still has life all these years since I first experienced it.
Directed by: Graham Dickson
Produced by: Dominic Lindesay-Bethune and Naomi Peterse
St Doctors Hospital runs until 9 April. Further information and bookings via the below link.