Saturday 23rd April 2022 at York Theatre Royal
The Olivier Award-winning Showstopper is currently touring the UK, offering a special brand of improv entertainment: musical theatre built upon the random foundations offered up by audiences. Here we have a show which promises to be completely unique each night, with no two shows too similar and for this particular night, York Theatre Royal’s patrons were feeling political (I can’t think why). The result? A brand new musical parody entitled “You’ve Let Us All Down-ing Street”, born then and there, for one night only.
As with all improv, the waters can be murky and there’s comedy to be found not just in the moments of sharp, precise ideas but also in the minor hesitations and endearing flubbing of lines. The audience were audibly thrilled with this cast and their fast thinking as they concocted something of a mash-up of political faux-pas over the past few years, drawing on a wealth of shared knowledge of shocking blunders, disturbing headlines and rotten decisions (or indecision as the case may be). There’s a sense that the Showstopper team training must surely extend well beyond musical theatre history and into general knowledge and cultural reference points which can be harnessed to create that winning brand of comedy, taking something familiar and unifying and stretching it to extremes.
The Showstopper company is technically a large one and the line-up changes from venue to venue, meaning that five cast mates from the wider collective find their way on stage for the show, joined by a small but very capable live band. Highlights for this singular show include Andrew Pugsley leading as our responsibility-dodging PM, Justin Brett’s scene-stealing masseuse and Heather Urquhart’s put-upon assistant. But the biggest highlights arrive in the hands of Pippa Evans and Ali James, the former being the standout thanks to a winning blend of a knowing smirk just about kept at bay and an unshakeable deadpan sincerity at just the right comic moment. The latter shines in her take on Johnson’s fictional youngest in a The Sound of the Music-inspired telling off – pretty glorious stuff.
Co-creators and directors Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery really do bravely open the floor to all possibilities here. With our host of sorts Sean McCann having given the audience free-reign to select the theme, location and title, decision-making about musical styles is also duly handed over to us. Leaving so much to chance and random selection does run the risk of disappointment, as the pair who scarpered from this political take-down around half an hour in might testify, but the talents of the cast are definitely worth seeing regardless of the luck of the draw in terms of theme. At this show, the selected musical fodder included Jesus Christ Super Star, Annie Get Your Gun, Rent and Hamilton and it’s certainly a testament to the expertise on hand that they encourage the audience to be broad in their selections across genre and era, allowing for some interesting variety to appear. That said, it sometimes feels a little too loose on the musical-inspo side, with some improvised numbers not necessarily channeling those selected musical foundations beyond a vague “in the style of”…
And everything is cannily geared towards versatility; a blank canvas stage (Simon Scullion) offers a movable doorway and steps available to take whatever capacity necessary. Costume from Gabriella Slade is almost circus-crowd in aesthetic with bold red and black combinations – and with the odd silly hat put to good use, too. Lighting (Bruce Benzie, Tom Clutterbuck, Damian Robertson) is also improvised in line with the unfolding narrative and Ali James’ movement direction allows the cast to take any guise needed while armed with some statement jazzy choreography.
So, it turns out that if we take a talented cast of five, add a canny band of two and mix that with wild audience suggestions and a great walloping dose of confident musical knowledge, there’s some impressive entertainment ahead. Laughter was plentiful at this show and I can imagine that with a cast as quick-witted and vocally versatile as this, that’s the story this show is leaving behind along its tour. Above all else though, there’s a distinct appeal to the promise of witnessing the debut and only performance of a brand new whacky musical. Improv and musical theatre fan? This one might be just the ticket for you…
Showstopper! tours until December 2022 and you can find information about dates, venues and tickets here.
Image credit: Hugo Glendinning