Comics sharpen up, audience dumbs down

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FOR MANY, improvisation remains rooted in the image of John Sessions being terribly smart-alec on Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the late 1980s, riffing with, say, a bicycle pump and a pair of water-wings in the style of Japanese Noh Theatre.

But on their debut at the outdoor venue of Shakespeare's Globe in Southwark on Friday, the Comedy Store Players proved that improv doesn't have to be insufferably smug; it can be clever and funny.

After an earlier downpour more suited to January than July, it looked like we would require all-weather gear rather than laughing gear. However, the Comedy Store Players - comprising Paul Merton, Jim Sweeney, Neil Mullarkey, Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson and Andy Smart - soon obliged us to concentrate on wit as opposed to weather. You don't play twice a week for 13 years without learning a bit about how to handle an audience.

Initially, it seemed we were destined for a smut-athon. The classical statues at the back of the stage must have blushed when the first suggestion from the audience for a household object was "vibrator".

Matters stayed in that vicinity when, soon after, a punter responded to Merton's request for a position to adopt with, "on the toilet, trousers down". "Congratulations, Shakespeare reborn," retorted Merton.

But the team soon steered the show into more cerebral territory; the skill of the Players is such that they don't need to resort to the loo for gags (although it's always there in moments of absolute desperation).

They also made good use of the surroundings at the Globe. To get into the Shakespearean atmosphere, Sweeney said that, "Fifty of the people here in the pit have agreed to die from The Plague".

The Players are at their strongest when they make wildly incongruous juxtapositions. Merton and Simpson, for instance, played out a killing pastiche of a Tarantino movie set in a custard factory. "Do you know what they call custard in Paris, France?", asked Merton in his best cod- Travolta accent. "Custard Royale." As befitted the venue, the repartee was never less than rapier-like.

For all the sharpness of the company, though, you had to doubt the intelligence of some of the people at this ideal venue for audience participation. After Sweeney asked them for a suggested place of work, someone piped up, "Jason Connery". Even more incredibly, when he demanded the title of a sequel to a Shakespeare play, another person shouted out, "McDonalds".

Perhaps, in an attempt to immerse themselves in the Shakespearean spirit beforehand, the punters had imbibed a little too much mead ...

James Rampton