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Comedy: Quick wit in the round

OVER THE last two decades, improvisational comedy has been in and out of fashion more often than Abba. But like the durable Swedish popsters, off-the-cuff comedy is very much a la mode at the moment.

The "sold out" signs for the Comedy Store Players' one-off improv performance at Shakespeare's Globe had been plastered on the box office for days. Those lucky enough to grab a ticket were not disappointed. The troupe (which consisted of Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Andy Smart, Jim Sweeney, Neil Mullarkey, Richard Vranch and Lee Simpson) seemed to feed off the boisterous audience.

Performing twice a week at the Comedy Store over the last 14 years, the Players have perfected the art of spontaneous silliness. Indeed, it's a case of the sillier, the better: as Sweeney pointed out: "talking bollocks is an intrinsic part of this show". Their daftness also helps them hurdle the greatest pitfall for improvisers: terminal smugness.

Although occasionally falling into the trap of extracting a cheap laugh from a crude gesture, the Players excel at imaginative incongruities. In one routine, Merton had to sing a show-stopping panto number about a torture chamber: "My torture song is very simple," he crooned. "I'll tell you anything you want to know."

Ever alert to comic possibilities, the Players were also able to exploit the theatre's period surroundings. In an extended musical spy spoof, Q (Merton) wandered over to the side of the stage and told Bond (Smart): "I'll show you what you need for this mission. This may look like an ordinary pillar, but actually..."

The audience was frequently as quick-witted. When asked to suggest a type of theatre, one man shouted out from the open-air arena: "One with a roof." Later we were invited to think of a title for a Shakespeare play, and someone proposed "Hey Nonny Nonny, My Dog Has Got the Pox".

After an evening of comedy often sharp enough to cut your finger, I heard a man on the way out of Shakespeare's Globe confide in his companion: "You know what I liked best about tonight? There was no actual Shakespeare in it."

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper