Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre stages Showstopper musical which they make up on the night
- Credit: Geraint Lewis
Showstopper!: The Improvised Musical, the Olivier-winning show which wowed both London’s West End and the Edinburgh Fringe, is arriving at the New Wolsey Theatre this weekend and is looking for lots of audience participation.
Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to longtime performer Andrew Pugsley about the joys of improvised theatre and the fact the audience loves to try and catch them out.
Staging a musical is a serious business. It’s the sort of thing that has driven composers, playwrights and impresarios to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
In order to get a show right, a new musical is usually tweaked or even given full-scale overhauls during out-of-town try-outs or in the case Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Love Never Dies, during an extended in-town preview, but for one Olivier-winning company every night see a brand-new premiere of a new musical.
Showstopper!: The Improvised Musical first found fame on the Edinburgh fringe before transferring to the West End and even landing its own Radio 4 series. Each night the cast create a new musical from scratch seeking subject suggestions and key information from the audience.
The audience collaborates with the performers to create the show during the course of the evening. For long-term Showstopper Andrew Pugsley every performance is an adventure into the unknown. “It’s thrilling experience because you never quite know what you are going to get. No two nights are ever the same, so it keeps everyone on their toes.”
He says that the thrill of the evening is to be found in the audience who often try and trip up the performers by suggesting either outlandish subjects or the really mundane. “Audiences really love trying to catch us out by going to the extremes but we are wise to them now. Funnily enough it can be the ordinary musical premises that can be the most challenging because the audiences are very used to the subject so it takes more invention to either impress them or make them laugh.”
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The show was created ten years ago when company founders Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery were working with improvised theatre master Ken Campbell.
“They were working on various improvised projects and one day Ken shouted out: ‘Now do it like it was a musical’. Suddenly they found themselves having to make up a musical from nothing.
“Out of that came the notion that this was something that you could turn into a show.”
The show went to Edinburgh fringe and gained a huge following as well as picking up accolades and awards including The Times Best of the Fringe, Mervyn Stutter’s Spirit Of The Fringe Award and nominations for Chortle Best Music Or Variety Act, MTM Best Production Award and MTM Judges’ Discretionary Award.
“When it went into the West End they developed a great format which allowed the performers on stage to interact with the audience and break-down that fourth wall. The framework is simple but effective. It involves a writer taking a call from a producer. The producer tells him: ‘I have a theatre that’s gone dark. I need a brand new musical now.’ Putting the phone down the writer turns to the audience for help.
“The writer asks the audience for some ideas and that’s where the show takes off from and the great thing is that it is different every night.”
He says that the evolving nature of the casts means that the show is kept fresh and the ensemble nature of it means that there is a real team spirit in the theatre each night both among the company and with the audience.
“Everyone bounces ideas off one another and you see a show come together on the stage before your very eyes. It’s an hilarious, very inclusive show. We keep taking suggestions and the show takes shape according to the wishes of the audience.
“The joy of Showstoppers! is that what your obvious next step in making musical is not necessarily my next step or someone else’s next step and there is a fascination is seeing something come together in a variety of different ways.
“We have some very talented musicians in the show and they can pull a number together in no time at all. They embrace the old jazz adage: ‘There’s no wrong note. It’s the note you play after that that matters.’
“Besides the audience loves to see the whole thing starting to wobble, it adds to the excitement and drama of the show. Could the whole thing come crashing down and it end in disaster? Well it hasn’t yet because invariably everything gets pulled together at the final moment.”
Showstopper!: The Improvised Musical is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, on February 17 and 18. A family version of the show will be staged at 2.30pm on Saturday, February 18.