REVIEW: An Improbable Musical (Hackney Empire)

When you book tickets to a musical you would ordinarily expect to see a highly polished, carefully choreographed production where every line, step and song has been rehearsed a hundred times. Not so if you’re heading to Hackney Empire for An Improbable Musical, a show which will be improvised before your eyes. The stage is set, the cast and crew are assembled and the band are ready to play – but none of them has any idea what’s about to happen. With a little help from the audience, a brand new musical takes place at every single performance. We went along to the press night to see what this talented team would come up with in a week where real life events have felt more improbable than anything that could possible happen on stage.

For those familiar with Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, this may not be an entirely novel concept but An Improbable Musical aims to push the boundaries of improvised theatre, adding puppetry and material animation to create something never before seen on stage. It’s also less structured than the work of The Showstoppers, who craft their show based on audience suggestions for the title, plot and song style (based on pastiches of well-known musicals). Although the Improbable performers take a handful of suggestions from the audience (wisely steering clear of anything political), they simply act as initial inspiration for the show that unfolds. On press night, that meant coming up with something ‘lackadaisical’ set in a herb garden and incorporating the sentence “The murder was horrible yet the wind was whispering”. The result was an often hilarious and surprisingly moving musical about herbs and homicide.

London, UK. 22.10.2022. Improbable Present An Improbable Musical, A Royal and Derngate, Northampton and Improbable Production, At Hackney Empire. Photograph © Jane Hobson.

One of the great things about reviewing an improvised musical is that it will never be performed again so there is no need to try and avoid spoilers. One of the more problematic things is that the press release doesn’t contain character names or song titles, meaning the following synopsis relies on my memory and could well contain major errors. But I’ll assume that’s forgivable given how many times the cast managed to get their own names wrong on stage!….

The press night show largely revolved around a relationship between neighbours, Sandra (Ruth Bratt) and Brian (Niall Ashdown). Trapped in a wilting marriage, Sandra finds herself with a growing interest in Brian, making frequent visits to his herb garden to poach his coriander. Initially oblivious to Sandra’s advances, and somewhat distracted by a relationship of ambiguous morality with a mysterious woman in the shed (Aya Nakamura), Brian’s feelings for Sandra finally blossom. Meanwhile, a rather unhinged woman (Josie Lawrence, who perhaps not so coincidentally also plays Brian’s wife) is on the hunt for a couple to kill at the behest of a mysterious man. Her weapon of choice; a cup of poisoned herb tea. A chance encounter at a railway station between Sandra’s estranged husband, Michael (Lee Simpson) and Brian’s wife (Josie Lawrence) sees Michael returning home to give it another go with Sandra. After all, they’ve both been rather lackadaisical when it comes to their relationship and Sandra’s not really that into Brian anyway; she just likes looking at his bottom. The pair reunite over a cup of tea – and you can imagine how it ends!

Improvisation is always impressive but especially so when it involves composing songs live on stage. Significant credit must go to the musicians (led by musical director and devisor, Christopher Ash), who set the scene with cues for the actors. Like Ash, Ruth Bratt is a seasoned Showstopper so it’s no surprise to see her give an assured musical performance in An Improbable Musical. Not only is she quick witted and hilarious but she even manages to create some moments of genuine pathos. Josie Lawrence is the other standout performer, offering a masterclass in improvisation (and another impressive vocal performance) as she expertly steps in to move the action along.

London, UK. 22.10.2022. Improbable Present An Improbable Musical, A Royal and Derngate, Northampton and Improbable Production, At Hackney Empire. Photograph © Jane Hobson.

Running at 90 minutes without an interval, it’s a good length for an improvised production. There is enough time to develop a vaguely coherent narrative and show off E Mallin Parry’s versatile set design, without things becoming stale or repetitive. Alongside the main storyline there were some side plots, some of which worked better than others. Although the attempt to include puppetry and animation of inanimate objects is interesting, it wasn’t fully integrated into the action on press night and, although impressive, a segment involving the transformation of a tea set into a duck went on rather too long. There were a few other moments where the action seemed to stall in places, but things tended to pick up whenever Lawrence or Bratt took control. Another slight risk with improvised theatre reared its head on press night, with the plot briefly stumbling into territory which would ordinarily warrant a trigger warning. Overall though, it was great fun and and ended on a rousing group number (“Pick your herbs in your own garden”) which sent the audience from the auditorium with grins on their faces and a stubborn earworm firmly planted in their heads!

Although the herbaceous history of Sandra and Brian was a one-night only event, we have no doubt that whatever comes tumbling out of the minds of the performers next will be just as entertaining. So if you’re feeling spontaneous this week, what could be more apt than booking a ticket to a show that will be created before your eyes? There aren’t too many chances left to see it in Hackney though, so make sure you grab a ticket while you still can. And if you’ve seen it already – no you haven’t – so why not go again?!

An Improbable Musical is a Royal & Derngate Northampton and Improbable Production which plays at Hackney Empire from 21 to 26 October 2022 (ahead of a tour in Spring 2023). We received complimentary press tickets to the performance on 21 October.