Review: Showstoppers! The Improvised Musical – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

As the houselights dim the cast are unsure of the show they are about to perform. Characters undeveloped and words unknown. No, not an example of bad planning but the bravery of a company who improvise a brand new musical from scratch each night, based on audience suggestions.

For their 341st musical, the Showstoppers company is faced with the challenge to set a show on a 1910 cruise liner sailing from Venice. Along the way, they are challenged to incorporate the musical styles of Salad Days, Avenue Q, Les Miserables, Blood Brothers, and a bit of 15th Century medieval chant.

The resulting world premiere of Sunk! features a tangled web of love, danger and dreams as passengers and crew face mortal danger. As if the company’s challenge wasn’t big enough thrown into the mix are more audience choices – scenes played in the style of a Mummers play, another violent scene in the style of Sarah Kane and even some tassel-waving Burlesque. Add a couple of gangsters with a love of opera and crochet and the surreal scene is set.

It all makes for a fast-moving montage of theatrical genres that totally involves its audience. Despite the varied suggestions the cast seem un-phased and produce a strangely credible stage musical from the disparate threads.

Framed by a desperate author (Dylan Emery) fighting to pitch his unwritten musical to a famous producer, there’s plenty of sending up the musical theatre canon here but all backed up with an impressive knowledge of the genre. The ever-revolving cast of Les Mis are shamelessly parodied and even the puppets of Avenue Q aren’t safe but it’s all done with affection and for the creation of this hybrid musical.

The story may end up being absurd but one can’t help but be impressed by the sheer skill and wit of the company (Adam Meggido, Phil Pellew, Ruth Bratt, Lucy Trodd and Nigel Pilkington). Not only are these first class singers but they possess sharp improvisational skills, constantly changing tact with the new suggestions. Musical director Duncan Walsh Atkins provides a constantly shifting accompaniment, echoing the classic styles being lampooned.

While the good ship La Traviata may have been sunk on stage, there’s more than enough humour and skill on display here to keep the evening afloat. Fans of musicals and comedy should make every effort to catch Showstoppers. It will of course be an entirely different show next time around but this company are more than up to the challenge.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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