Improvisation has never been Britain’s favourite form of comedy. While the Americans and New Zealanders prefer their humour made up on the spot, our nation favours the farcical sitcom or the lone art of the stand-up.
Impro did however experience mass popularity with Whose Line is it Anyway? And it has featured weekly at the Comedy Store in London for 20-odd years in the form of the Comedy Store Players. The Players were created when Mike Myers and Kit Hollerbach brought the impro phenomena across the Atlantic and taught its skills to Paul Merton, Neil Mullarkey and Dave Cohen.
Merton has kept up the impro since those early days at the Comedy Store. He has been touring with his ‘Impro Chums’ for a while now (they're in actual fact his Comedy Store Player buddies) and at the City Varieties Music Hall on Tuesday, Leeds certainly embraced the form.
""I want to be an onion," Merton announces in a role-play within a role-play about diplomats in a psychotherapy session."
For this show, modern-day Players Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson and Suki Webster join Merton, as does the familiar face of Mike McShane (oft seen on Whose Line...) The format, for anyone who missed the nineties TV show, is a series of games inspired by suggestions from the audience; albeit suggestions that are skilfully vetted by the Players. After all, there are only so many Carry On-style scenes set in a proctologist’s surgery and featuring a man with a banana that the Players can take.
Games such as 'Freeze' involve the action being paused so that another player can join in and take it in a different direction; a skit
between two bank clerks becomes a Hammer horror, then a Pulp Fiction dialogue. Elsewhere an expert talks gobbledegook while another translates, and a professor develops three personalities – quite literally.
As you'd expect, many of the Chums’ ideas result in the delightfully absurd. Particularly those that come from Merton. “I want to be an onion,” he announces in a role-play within a role-play about diplomats in a psychotherapy session. Then there are the javelin-lobbing giraffes and McShane as a man-kissing shark.
Occasionally, even with experts such as these, the banal slips out. In the opening skit, Maid Marian has PMT. And the adoption of the bum-in-the-air yoga position ‘downward dog’ by Webster inevitably prompts schoolboy sniggering from the others.
On the whole though, the gang display the skill and ease that's borne from working together so many times before. And although they often slip into regular roles with Simpson playing coy women and McShane as the token Yank, they still find time for a running gag featuring a 108-year-old Subway sandwich-maker.