The Hackney Empire is a stunning example of theatrical splendour. It’s a carefully crafted, imaginative and magical building; the perfect vessel for the similarly fashioned show, An Improbable Musical.
The evening begins with improv legend Josie Lawrence explaining what to expect. Nothing has been pre‑planned. With the help of the audience three topics are selected, which will form the basis of the performances. Tonight, the team are assigned a herb garden, the word ‘lackadaisical’, and the sentence “the murder was horrible, yet the wind was whispering”. OK – a bit of a challenge there?
The fabulous band of musicians strike up a tune and instantly an extraordinary series of comic improvisations begins. Lawrence is joined by Lee Simpson, Ruth Bratt and Niall Ashdown – all total improv masters and immensely talented. Together they invent hilarious scenarios, whilst singing beautifully and turning out perfectly formed musical numbers without batting an eyelid! Their fabulous performance skills are enhanced still further by the cohesive, supportive relationships they have. It’s as if they are psychically connected, each invisibly cueing the other; developing the story organically and convincingly. Yes, there are moments where they hesitate or giggle, but it’s thrilling to sense that this is as risky as live theatre gets. The team exude a confidence that reassures you great stuff will come: and it does.
On this night there were some fabulously funny scenes, with Bratt and Ashdown hilariously giving Lawrence a run for her money. My particular favourite was a running story about lovers who come together over a coriander bush, although the dust cake scene was almost as impressive. The secret ingredient, however, proves to be unexpectedly beautiful puppetry from Aya Nakamura and Clarke Joseph-Edwards, which integrates delightfully into the programme and elevates it way beyond straightforward improv. Using subtle manipulation, a dead body, formed only of crumpled sheets of paper, is made to rise from dormancy and take to the air in fluid, convincing strides. Later, Nakamura and Joseph-Edwards explore some cups, saucers and a teapot in synchronicity, with only atmospheric background music to support them. They carefully draw out movements from the objects, testing their properties, until suddenly the pieces connect invisibly and are alive. Helped by Simpson, there is now a duck in their hands, which inspires a song about how a scared bird plucks up courage to jump into the water. It’s magical, and utterly captivating.
The clever set design is ideally suited to a musical, flexibly spinning to create new spaces and offering appropriate drama when required. Some simple steps up to a tiny window create distance between potential lovers, and then lead us up to focus on their story. And just like in a real musical, it was not all comedy. In fact, one of the songs about a marriage break-up is heartbreakingly poignant. In one moment where Simpson plays a heartbroken character, slinking off to sit sadly in the background, I thought to myself how well-directed the move was – almost evoking a shot from a 1950s movie. Then I remembered it wasn’t directed at all; it was totally instinctive. These guys are really good…
By the end of the evening the audience were applauding wildly, astonished by what they’d seen, and my face ached with laughter. And tomorrow’s show will be totally different, uniquely crafted for the next audience alone. This is such a surprising, exciting night out; masses of fun for everyone, from single seaters to great big groups. Get tickets early, though, because you might have to go back several times to compare performances!
Directed by: Lee Simpson
Musical Devised and Directed by: Christopher Ash
Associate Director: Angela Clerkin
Puppet Design and Direction by: Aya Nakamura
Design by: EM Parry
Lighting Design by: Colin Grenfell
Sound Design by: Will Thompson and Oscar Thompson
Movement Direction by: Pauline Mayers
Musicians: Max Gittings (flute), Joley Cragg (Percussion) and Juliet Colyer (Cello)
Produced by: Royal and Derngate with Improbable
An Improbable Musical plays at Hackney Empire until 26 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.