A question, dear reader, a quiz if you will: what are the two most terrifying words in the entirety of the English language? ‘Serial’ and ‘killer’? ‘Student’ and ‘loan’? ‘Darth’ and ‘Vader’? ‘Ant’ and ‘Dec’? If you chose any of the above in response, then I am afraid to tell you that you are incorrect; do not pass Go, do not collect £200. ‘Twas, I fear, a trick question, for the answer is so much more horrifying than any of those, perhaps even more petrifying than all of those things put together. The reply that I sought was, brace yourselves, ‘improvised’ and ‘comedy’. Yes, two very innocuous-seeming words, but ones laced with horrific connotations: standing up on a floodlit stage whilst desperately trying to come up with something funny to say for the benefit of the scowling masses; panicking as one realises that one hasn’t the slightest idea what it is that one’s partner is miming; forgetting how to speak at all and ending up staring blankly at the audience for a full five minutes, all whilst your compatriots backstage sadly shake their heads and tut. To me, improvised comedy is the true battleground of the comic world, the field upon which legends rise and incredibly dull people fall; arguably, if you can do improv well you can probably do most other types of comedy rather well too. The trouble is, it requires an enormous amount of skill and quick-wittedness to be able to improvise anything to an acceptable level; fortunately, the wags of the University of Bristol’s very own improvised comedy society have both of these desirable attributes in surplus.
The location of the troupe’s raucous rampage was to be found on George Street, within the darkened walls of the Whynot Club. This was a rather spacious venue, and fortunately so, for the place was brimming with people; clearly, the Bristolians’ reputation preceded them. That or they were damned good at flyering. Rather than the rows of rigid chairs that are de riguer at the vast majority of such shows, the audience were seated upon a cluster of beanbag-type seats scattered willy-nilly before the stage, a refreshing (and comfortable!) alternative that aided one when it came to settling in for the performance. The staff, however, were careful to ensure that no one drifted off before the curtain had risen, principally through the medium of rock music. This meant that the punters were nicely settled in, ready for the onslaught of comedy that was about to assail them from, quite literally, all sides.
The basic premise of the show seemed, at first glance, to be simple enough, though it belied the potential teased out by the assembly of wits. Essentially, the company of clowns are potential employees who have come to be interviewed, the twist being that the onlookers may alter the situation as a sort of depraved collection of bosses. This is a most excellent concept for a show such as this, as it allows the comics to delve a rich vein of humour without veering wildly off course; it gives them a frame of scaffolding to work within. So it was that the situation quickly escalated from being a simple interview for a job in the Navy to an all-out war between the British Armed Forces and the disgruntled grocers of the UK, via adventures in the Himalayas with the Dalai Lama and the theft of a variety of pastries from Greggs. All of these absurd predicaments were dreamt up by various audience members, yet thanks to the basic outline encompassing each scene, not to mention the skill of the performers, the individual segments blended together to form a bizarrely coherent whole. This apparently trivial framing mechanism allowed the show to succeed where many others have failed; in having a basic plotline, each sketch could be enacted and made as untoward as possible whilst maintaining some sense of relevance, as well as allowing the comedians and comediennes to fall back on their initial characters, assigned by the audience, should anything go wrong. Furthermore, it provided the show with an ever-increasing momentum, keeping both performers and punters on their toes and preventing the entire operation from falling flat.
Now must the spotlight fall on the salient aspect of the show: the wacky wits themselves. Time and time again did their innate talent for the humourous surge forth, gracing the gaggle with giggles. Each and every member of the ensemble was brimming with ideas, as evidenced by their strong solo performances; Jonathan Bitel, for example, did a spiffing job as a man with a severe allergy to chairs, whilst Emily Cawse produced an inspired routine as a woman who could only speak in vowels. What propelled this group into the stratosphere of comic brilliance, however, was their ability to bind individual excellence together into a phenomenal alliance of adroitness. This collection of clowns work so well together that one wonders if they aren’t all under the influence of some incredibly witty hive mind; Stephen Hartill was a particularly noteworthy team player, displaying comic chemistry with both Mel Melville and Imogen Palmer that was a joy to behold. Not once did these behemoths of banter falter in their quest to induce guffaws from their audience, and I can honestly say that I have never seen a more capable cast of caperers than these fresh-faced funnymen and women.
In short, ‘Bristol Improv for Hire’ had all the necessities required to put on a fantastic show, and then some. The performers dodged the numerous pitfalls associated with improvised comedy to ultimately stand triumphant to rapturous applause, and there can be little doubt in the minds of those who attended this tour de force that this band of Bristolians is destined for stardom. This is a supremely talented troupe of comics who are all silly, surreal, sacrilegious and, quite frankly, superb. Five out of five stars.
More information about this group can be found here.