FRINGE / The playing's the thing: Sarah Hemming on improvisation, black Irish comedy and an open-air production of Shakespeare's Shrew

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The Independent Culture
PLAYWRIGHTS reading this should prepare to despair. On Monday night, the hottest day of the year, Nottingham Playhouse was packed. What was it that had crowds flocking to one of the regional reps, so notoriously difficult to fill? Tragedy? Comedy? A tough new play or a blockbuster musical? No, Improbable Tales was none of these: it was an entire evening's drama without the slightest sniff of a script.

Improvisation looks to be a growth area. For Improbable Tales, impro-veterans of television, comedy and fringe move on to the terrain of Shakespeare and Ayckbourn - and do so with great skill. Starting with the techniques of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the four ad-libbers (Lee Simpson, Phelim McDermott, Niall Ashdown and Guy Dartnell) and their guests (Tony Slattery and Beverley Fox, on Monday) take audience suggestions to establish a scenario. But they develop it further, extrapolating each scenario into a playlet, in which the audience can influence the action.

In spirit closest to a pantomime, the evening has an edge of danger, and part of the attraction is that the actors could slip up. On Monday the team skirted pitfalls, changing tack at sticky moments and never commencing until the audience came up with a sufficently detailed setting. The show is, of course, critic-proof - the only guarantee is that further productions will be completely different (Monday produced a Lady Chatterley-esque love story and a musical in which Andrew Lloyd Webber met his demise in a bidet). It's often hilarious, though spectators hoping for an instant King Lear or Noises Off would be frustrated. Scripts do have their advantages.

Batting for the playwrights is Roy Smiles, whose latest black comedy Danny Boy has just opened at the Etcetera, Camden. Smiles is emerging as a master of the comic encounter, and Danny Boy is no exception. Here Danny Healy, a meek woodwork teacher in Derry, is watching telly when the Angel Gabriel appears in his front room. He informs Danny that his interest in carpentry and peaceable disposition are more than chance character-traits and leaves him dealing with the implications of a Second Coming in Derry.

Smiles is better at creating situations than driving a plot, but his dialogue is very witty and his characters eccentric and funny - such as Danny's Republican mother Mary (yes, his father is called Joseph), a rabid activist who is tormented by her son's unrepentant pacificism. Crispin Whittell's production is crisp, with strong performances, particularly Vernon Gudgeon as an intense, bewildered Danny.

The Taming of the Shrew opens this year's Open Air season in Regent's Park (directed by Toby Robertson). The jolly, colourful set and credit in the programme for a 'commedia dell'arte Adviser' suggest we're in for a light, breezy production with plenty of comic business that doesn't delve deep - and that's just what we get. It looks lovely but stays superficial: the relationship between Kate and Bianca is lost, that between Petruchio and Kate reduced to lion tamer and wild cat - although both Geordie Johnson and Cathy Tyson seem ready for far more. The talented Tyson, in particular, seems underused. Lots of colour; not much shading.

'Improbable Tales' runs to Sat (0602 419419); 'Danny Boy' runs to 13 June (071-482 4857); 'The Taming of the Shrew' is in rep (071-486 2431)