It is a tough task to review an improvisation show, because by definition no two iterations of the show itself can be the same – there being no script and, in the case of Mischief Movie Night, which opened Thursday at the New Theatre in Cardiff, even the prompts not being fixed, but varying, one suspects considerably, on each new performance. At the end of their first run, the cast themselves warned the audience that, should they come and see the performance again, they should not expect future iterations to always turn up to spin such a coherent tale (indeed, it was a bit of a marvel how cohesive the thing came out to be, even managing to pull off a three-act narrative structure that is certainly not expected of a plot completely made up on the spot). It is perhaps a good starting point, then, to observe that this cast certainly has the ability to create something with this high a level of coherence, even if it is on their best night.
It could be argued also that coherence is not the most important feature in comedy. Improvisation can be driven in a variety of directions, and can be used to conjure some very serious shows, but Mischief Movie Night aims to be a comedy, and this provides it with a thematic baseline that allows it to indulge in a taste for the surreal that is perfectly suited to an improvised show. The concept is deceptively simple: at the start of the performance the narrator drives a moment of audience participation in which he collects, through prompts from the audience itself, a variety of key elements that will form the framework within which the story will be built. Then the action is paused at strategic points, with the narrator providing additional points as the action develops and building on whatever the other actors are giving him. It is a tricky model, but it can be very rewarding when played right. It must be noted, for instance, that some of the best moments in the performance, as well as some of the more effective recurring gags, were based off a line dropped accidentally by one of the actors without thinking, or an accidental circumstances that required the cast to conjure an elegant way out of it. The cast must certainly be praised for their ability to not be daunted by difficult situations and to find inventive ways out of the corners they put themselves in – qualities that are fundamental when performing without a script.
Also impressive is the level of structure and complexity the cast is capable of putting together starting from prompts that are deliberately chosen among the most outlandish and mismatched. A particular praise must be given to the musicians on stage, Yshani Perinpanayagam and Ed Zanders, for taking on the task of providing an impromptu soundtrack and even driving surprisingly successful singing scenes – sometimes along known tunes, but not always, which raises the challenge considerably. That the cast managed to jump into the singing scenes in almost perfect harmony, to the point that some of them might almost have looked rehearsed, is a credit both to the courage in attempting to push the improvisation formula to its limits and to the resourcefulness in exploiting the most difficult aspects of it.
It is a pleasure to see improvisation make something of a way back on a bigger stage, as it has for too long been regarded as somewhat of a gimmick, rather than an equally dignified form of performance as regular scripted drama. Made out of actors trained at prestigious academies such as LAMDA and RADA, Mischief Theatre presented a clear-cut example of the potential of the genre and of the high levels of quality it can reach when performed by professionals that are deeply committed to their own silliness and surreal mood. The result was such that it could both elicit booming laughter from the audience and leave one reflecting positively, afterwards, on its high levels of artistry.
In the hope that we will see somewhat of an improvisation renaissance, and that shows such as this will become less of a rarity in the theatre landscape, it is certainly worth going to check out Mischief Movie Night and see what other, completely different, cinema spoofs its cast will construct during the rest of its run.