Ipswich: Paul Merton and his Impro Chums

Comedian Paul Merton comes to Ipswich tonight

Comedian Paul Merton comes to Ipswich tonight - Credit: Archant

Armed with just your suggestions, their finely honed improvisational skills and an almost manic compulsion to show off, Paul Merton and his impro chums return to Ipswich tonight. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage caught up with the man himself.

Paul Merton and his Impro Chums: Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster

Paul Merton and his Impro Chums: Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster - Credit: Archant

“I remember talking to an Italian waiter once who said ‘but what you do is impossible’... in the end I had to agree with him,” laughs Merton before the opening night of his new Impro Chums tour.

He, Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster are as much in the dark about what’s going to happen once they step on stage as the audience.

“You can’t prepare for a single show because there’s nothing you can prepare; preparation is the many years you’ve done it (impro). We might do a warm-up exercise to make sure we’re speaking with clear diction, things to make sure the brain’s going in the right gear. Once we get the suggestion for the first game off we go; luckily every time the plane takes off...”

Why does he put himself through it?

“It’s laziness, if you can pull it off it’s easier than writing anything,” laughs the Just A Minute regular. “It’s that thrill, that joy, that challenge of getting it off the ground and making it work, that’s what appealing for us I think. I don’t think about the possibility of the show other than when I’m in interviews and then I realise it’s a ridiculous thing really... we’re trusting that, entirely based on the audience suggestions, the five of us are going to be able to make a show that’s funny from the beginning that’s going to work all the way through to the end.”

Worried I’m going to bring on stage fright I suggest a change of subject.

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“I think so, I can’t think of anything else now,” he laughs.

The next thing I read will be he’s cancelled the tour.

“Due to difficulty of gig, due to impossibility of show. Journalist said ‘I would do it again tomorrow. I performed a public service’,” he laughs.

The real secret to making the show work night after night is surrounding yourself with good people. Liking each other really helps too.

“If you’re working in an impro group and there’s two people who don’t get on you’ll find every scene they do together is a big argument scene,” laughs the Have I Got News for You team captain. “It might be two kittens at play (but if) one comes on and says ‘you b*****d... it’s better if people get on.”

Anybody familiar with performing impro knows there are certain rules. As far as Merton’s concerned, knowing them is good - but it’s even better to break them sometimes.

“If I’m in a scene with you and say ‘ah doctor thank God you’re here’... if you say ‘I’m not a doctor I’m a plumber’ okay that gets one laugh but then we’re sort of ‘right okay, well I was looking for a doctor but as you’re a plumber perhaps you can fit the sink over there’.

“It can be fun to say ‘no I’m a plumber’ but there would be some impro groups which would frown upon that. We take the view if it’s funny it’s right. The show’s got to be funny. (If you say) ‘oh, I’m sorry, I’m not a plumber on Saturdays’.. if you keep saying I’m not going with your suggestion you hit a series of buffers.”

Audiences are encouraged to shout suggestions out; there’s no bad idea in impro and you’re not going to get a withering comeback if Merton or co decide they don’t like your idea of polar bears playing tennis.

“I always say at the top of the show this isn’t a show where we get people up on stage or anything like that. I want to people to feel confident to shout things out at the time when we’re asking for them because otherwise there’s a dead patch when they’re feeling a little bit shy.

“We don’t generally get hecklers, it’s not that sort of thing and there’s five of us anyway so they would just be told to ‘shut up, there’s more of us than there are of you’,” laughs Merton, a founder member of The Comedy Store Players who still appears at the store most Sundays.

There will always be suggestions the chums won’t touch.

“Somebody on this tour will write a suggestion and put in the bucket and it will say Madeleine McCann, there is always somebody who will. That’s where you say ‘we won’t do that one, we won’t tell you why but it’s not because we can’t do it because we could (but) it would go ghastly and horrible’.

“If you ask for a style of fiction they always say Harry Potter. You have to say ‘we had that before’ and we get another one. So the audience don’t have complete control because that would be anarchy, but input yes.”

I can imagine people walking out after the show, taking credit for Merton, McShane, Vranch, Simpon and Webster’s night’s work.

“They can do if they like,” laughs Merton. “If a suggestion for a scene is really good it will lead to a really good scene; not that you can say ‘that scene didn’t work because the suggestion wasn’t very good’, that’s no good. You can say the reason why that really took off is that that suggestion was so full of possibilities.”

So his advice to people coming along to see Paul Merton’s Impro Chums at the Ipswich Regent tonight?

“Challenge us with a great suggestion - and don’t say Harry Potter,” he laughs.

For an interview with the impro chums, click the above link. For the latest entertainment news follow @WhatsonWayne on Twitter.

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