Comedy Store Players The Globe London
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 the Comedy Store Players last night proved that improvisation doesn't have to be insufferably smug; it can be clever and funny.

Things did not look promising for them before the show, their debut at the outdoor venue of Shakespeare's Globe in Southwark, south London, had been subjected to the sort of 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 - last night 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. The ornate classical statues at the back of the stage must have blushed when virtually the first suggestion from the audience for a household object was "vibrator."

Matters stayed in that vicinity when, soon after, a punter replied to Merton's request for a position to adopt with: "On the toilet ... trousers down." "Congratulations, Shakespeare reborn," retorted Merton, quick as a flash. The skill of the Players is such that they don't need to resort to the loo for gags.

They made good use of the wondrous surroundings at the Globe. To get into the Shakespearean atmosphere, Sweeney said that "50 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 Quentin 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."

For all the sharpness of the company, though, you had to doubt the intelligence of some of the audience. 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, someone shouted out: "McDonald's."

It was a case of: never mind the punters, feel the Players.