Arts: Hold on, let's try that again

With the aid of three assistants, Eddie Izzard gives the ailing art of improvisation some eclectic-shock treatment. By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Whose Line Is It Anyway? is, to be frank, no longer compulsory viewing, and people have been whispering that perhaps the last rites should be read to improvisation. It has taken a man with high heels and bright red lipstick to give it the kiss of life again. To his army of camp followers, Eddie Izzard has that sort of power; he can even make a lurid pair of green PVC trousers look cool, for goodness sake. One Word Improv is not a one-man show - alongside Izzard, Neil Mullarkey, Suki Webster and Stephen Frost improvise sketches based on one word provided by the audience - but you sense that it almost could be. Izzard's stand-up show, after all, features many notable routines where he acts out several roles on his own - remember the mina birds in an aeroplane? - and this week he has talked about having to stop himself taking over in One Word Improv. It is the perfect stage for him, giving free rein to the most surreal imagination this side of the Dadaists. This is a man who has confessed in the past to his love of "talking bollocks".

The improvisational fizz certainly goes a bit flat when Izzard is not taking part; you find your eyes drawn to the bar-stools at the side of the stage when he is perched there. At one stage on Thursday at the Albery Theatre, he grabbed the stage-side microphone as if to interrupt the centre- stage proceedings and heads visibly swivelled in anticipation. Even when he runs out of steam, he raises laughs; at one point, he ground to a halt mid-ramble and admitted to great acclaim: "I've no idea what I'm talking about."

He also has the authority to wade in and put a stop to a sketch that's losing the plot (although that is often the charm of improv). After an inspired riff as King Arthur wielding an Excalibur-like chainsaw, Izzard dashed on in the middle of the next, rather flagging improvisation and decapitated the others' heads with it.

Such is his mesmeric hold on the audience that he can endlessly repeat a seemingly insignificant line - such as "you're going to borstal" - to ever bigger laughs. He is also able to gang up naughtily with them against his fellow performers. When Frost as a hunchback-inspector came to visit Izzard's Quasimodo and told a string of weak gags, Izzard ran to the front of the stage and shouted: "People of Paris, a wanker has come to inspect me." Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley were spotted in the star-studded audience on Thursday. Like the rest of us, they were no doubt cooing to each other that, thanks to a man in fashion-victim trousers, One Word Improv is ab fab.

`One Word Improv' at the Albery Theatre,

London, WC2 (0171-369 1740) to 16 March