First Night: Comic players find perfect stage at Globe

Comedy Store Players Shakespeare's Globe London
OVER THE past two decades, improvisation has been in and out of fashion more often than Abba. But like theSwedish popsters, off-the- cuff comedy is very much a la mode at the moment.

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

Performing twice a week at the Comedy Store over the past 14 years, the Players have perfected the art of spontaneous silliness - indeed, the sillier the better. As Sweeney pointed out: "Talking bollocks is an intrinsic part of this show." Their sheer daftness also helps them hurdle the greatest pitfall for improvisers: terminal smugness.

Although occasionally falling into the easy trap of extracting a cheap laugh from a crude gesture, the company excelled at imaginative incongruities. In one routine, Merton had to sing a show-stopping panto number about a torture dungeon: "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 about an undercover chicken, 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 frequently seemed equally quick. When asked to suggest a type of theatre, one man shoutedfrom the middle of the windy, open- air arena: "One with a roof."

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