These are what the Comedy Store Players call the impro fundamentalists: actors, as opposed to comedians, who stick to the rules laid down in the impro scriptures on pain of death. "If you crack a gag on stage they issue a fatwah," says Jim Sweeney, as we board a packed train at Wimbledon Station one Sunday evening en route for the Comedy Store. The Players are, there's no denying, a troupe of impro devotees, but any comparison to other impro outfits living or (presumed) dead is considered an insult to their spiritual code - namely, to break the rules.
For 10 years now, the Comedy Store Players have been performing twice weekly to a cult following who used to regularly queue alongside Leicester Square for four hours to ensure prime seating. Ten years on, the queues are gone (telephone booking lines have been discovered), the Comedy Store has switched venues (the Players now have their own toilet), and the line- up for tomorrow night's 10th anniversary gig contains just one sole survivor from the original six members.
Plans to fly in ex-collaborators Mike Myers and Mike McShane were shelved when, according to Sweeney, "We decided not to make it a wham-bam showbiz thing." A decision entirely in keeping with the group's low-key approach (no manager, no agent), and their somewhat overworked reputation as "comedy's best-kept secret".
The current team boasts founder member Neil Mullarkey, Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton, Richard Vranch (the piano on Whose Line Is It Anyway?), Lee Simpson (formerly Terry in the Julian Clary vehicle Terry and Julian) and Jim Sweeney, formerly of impro duo Sweeney and Steen. The line-up is fixed on a semi-permanent basis, but invariably someone will drop out (Merton, for example, plays Sundays only), and so a pool of eager young pups stand by awaiting the call-up - the likes of, in the past, Eddie Izzard, Greg Proops, Rory Bremner, Tony Slattery, Caroline Quentin and (they know no shame) Nicholas Parsons.
An hour or so prior to showtime, and the Players are beginning to assemble. When Sweeney and I walk into the coffin-shaped dressing room, Vranch has already hopped off the number 38 from Islington, Merton and Simpson are discussing how best to get to Norfolk, and Mullarkey is in the toilet. Josie Lawrence will not be attending. "She is," says Sweeney, "luvvied up." Merton expands: "She's up in Stratford doing eight-hour performances of Faust and nobody's turned up apparently, but once they've started they've got to see it through. She's coming back for the anniversary though."
The drinks order is taken. "Pint of lager, weak, not Stella," says Sweeney, anxious to retain his faculties. Merton, studiously rolling a cigarette, plumps for "orange juice and lemonade. Pint."
Founder member Neil Mullarkey is the group's Bill Wyman, the archivist who, Vranch claims, can instantly recall the line-up on any given day. Mullarkey can tell you that the audience-suggestion games that make up the show all originate from Second City in Chicago, where the talents of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Mike Myers were nurtured. The Players first performed, he remembers, in Edinburgh in August 1985 before an audience of five. The line-up? Mullarkey, Merton, Dave Cohen (last seen with Jewish rockers Guns N' Moses), Kit Hollerbach (last seen married to comedian Jeremy Hardy) and Myers (last seen in Hollywood). A couple of months later the Comedy Store run began.
Don Ward, the Store's boss, can usually be found loitering near the bar. With the well-oiled sheen of a successful showbiz impresario, he introduces himself as "producer, owner, proprietor, instigator". Of exactly what, he doesn't feel he needs to say. "The Players," he announces with a fatherly pride, "are my bankers. I've nursed them through. I've had to lose to make. If I see potential, I stick with it. I've had patience..." he beams, "and it's been rewarded."
Ward will be pleased to hear, then, that Paul Merton can see them still playing in 2005. Evidently, he loves the opportunity afforded to roam the comic byways of his mind once a week, away from the cameras. "If you go away for a month to work elsewhere, when you come back, it's always 'Great, back to this', because if you do something in television you have to deal with all these people to get across the idea that you want, whereas here you stand on the stage and you say the idea as it comes into your head."
Half an hour before the off, the dressing room is cleared of all liggers, journos, mates, girlfriends and wives (unless Merton's missus, Caroline Quentin, is on the bill). They just "talk about anything, chat, focus, prepare..." says Sweeney. But not rehearse, because with impro you can't, though there are those who think it's a fix. "Harry Hill reckons it's all a con," laughs Sweeney. "That the audience shouts out the same things and we slip into the same routines. Like we're lying."
Unlike stand-up, where the punters are there to abuse and/or be abused, the audience plays a major part. Many of the audience return again and again, though, despite the Players' boyish charms, there's no groupie mentality. When Vranch gets the beers in during the interval, he's practically ignored. Noticeably, it's a young crowd.
The half-time chat runs something like this:
Merton: "There's certain references they just don't understand."
Sweeney: "You can't get a laugh out of Lionel Blair any more."
Merton: "The days when Mary, Mungo and Midge brought the house down are sadly gone. And Reg Varney as well. We've got people who weren't born when Monty Python stopped."
So it must have been perversity that caused Merton to blank the audience later that night with a Wilfrid Hyde-White gag.
Five minutes after the show, the Players are unwinding backstage.
Merton: "A typical evening."
Simpson: "Calling a member of the audience a twat was a bit odd."
Vranch: "Well he was."
Merton: "A couple of things didn't work tonight. The foreign lecturer thing... I couldn't see any jokes at all."
Vranch: "Yeah, I was trying to do too much."
Merton: "It wasn't your fault. It's the nature of it. There's no rehearsal so things like that happen. [looking at me] Anyway, it's only because you're here that we're actually talking about it at all. Normally we go straight down the pub. And they close at half 10 on a Sunday... And it's already quarter past..."
Comedy Store Players 10th anniversary, Comedy Store, 1 Oxendon St, London SW1 (0171-344 4444), 8pm tomorrow, pounds 9