I have never seen such an un-British display of enthusiasm for public participation in a musical. Frankly, it was hard to get last night’s audience for Showstopper! to be quiet.
The idea of this Edinburgh Festival hit, you see, is for the audience to shout out suggestions for theme, setting and plot twists in order to create a brand new improvised musical to be performed by a group of actors on stage.
Showstopper! founders Dylan Emery and Adam Meggido have obviously hit on a winning formula, as much as creating a new musical every night can be formulaic. The result, as last night’s show revealed, can be hilariously oddball: a musical set in an undertaker’s in 18th century Blackheath, with numbers inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Threepenny Opera and The Rocky Horror Show is, after all, not your usual West End offering.
While the six actors expound upon the suggestions on stage, Emery plays narrator/writer/director, picking up on words and themes which come out of their acting in order to steer them in ever more witty and bizarre directions. So a laughter-inducing line uttered by self-proclaimed Covent Garden flower girl Crocus – “have you ever smelt a pansy?” – becomes crucial for the redemption of our unlikely hero, an undertaker who becomes embroiled in a dastardly plot.
At times, Emery throws his actors a curveball, ‘writing’ a character who must sing in German or challenging them to create a song about people who have risen from the dead (Neighbours character Harold Bishop was one sharp audience member’s suggestion). Equally, he is not afraid to stop the action if he feels something isn’t working, thinking on the spot to change the direction of the show, or asking the audience to come up with an alternative.
With little in the way of props and costumes, the actors use their physicality, accents and quick-thinking improvisational skills to flesh out the storyline. Helped by an equally talented band led by keyboard player Duncan Walsh-Atkins, they create a series of songs inspired by the suggested themes, impressively incorporating harmonies and amusing lyrics.
It doesn’t always work: the plot is a little muddled and they never quite get to grips with the final, climatic song. But it would be churlish to quibble over details. On the whole this is a hugely entertaining evening presented by a talented group of actors who deserve praise for beating the nerves that must come from stepping out on stage without a script.
What’s more, it is a show you could return to again and again, if only to see what could possibly be more bizarre than a musical entitled Bring Out Your Dead. You couldn’t make it up. Oh, actually you could.