'A man cannot make him laugh. But that’s no marvel; he drinks no wine.' Act IV, Scene II, Henry IV Part II
Improv is the skydiving of theatre. As a performer, when you land successfully, your whole body feels electric. Never mind sunshine - you feel like you’ve got liquid rainbows in your veins. But when it doesn’t…well, there’s a reason they call it “dying” on stage. The first act of Friday night’s “Hilarity: the Improv Comedy Festival” had me fidgeting uncomfortably as the performers struggled with their parachutes. Local theatre company “Up the Antics”, ostensibly veterans of the Bristol comedy circuit, systematically failed to find this electricity. Despite the occasional inspired story-line about a entrepreneur-thief who uses his barber's hair-clippings to make cheap pillows, the cast failed to arouse more than an often confused smattering of laughter from the crowd. A lack of confidence and comedic synergy could be blamed, but being unlucky enough to go first before a crowd mostly new to improv was undoubtedly a factor.
The “Hilarity” and indeed laughter started to get properly underway with “The Inheritance”, one of Bristol’s foremost “Longform” Improv troupes, who spun a twisting tale of redemption between a father and son cursed with stubby fingers. Top moments included the hunting down of a merciless face-thief, interviews for the post of ferrying the dead across the river Styx, and Machiavellian intrigue about who was whose favourite shelf-stacking-buddy. The setting for all this? TK Maxx. By the time “What’s your Flavour?”, Bristol’s recently founded BME troupe, took to the stage, things were looking bright. The audience, with the aid of the interval alcohol, had found their feet and “What’s Your Flavour?” emerged with infectious enthusiasm; they even did a dance. From the word “go” (or in this case, the audience's suggestion of “fashion week”) they had the crowd in stitches. Although all five performers shone, special mention must go to Pravanya Pillay (for her immortal delivery of “I’m such a nerd”) and Philippe Bosher (for his disastrous tweed-allergy and for being himself). That night, they were everyone’s flavour.
The amount of laughter meant set timings went out the window and “Bristol Improv” only came on two hours into the show. No one cared. After “interviewing” a brave soul in the audience, they went on to recreate his life in parody to the glee of both the crowd and the interviewee. His response to “the first band you saw live?” (answer: “King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard”) yielded a myriad of fantastically funny options which the talented cast exploited to the full. The only (mostly hidden) hiccup was a tendency to try to unnecessarily insert improv “in-jokes” (read: Lizard Lounge) into scenes for the performers own amusement. Although these went over the audiences heads, the fact that the cast were visibly having such fun meant the crowd enjoyed the spirit of it, if not the specifics. Special mention goes to Ted Milligan for his hilarious King Lizard and also the “Benjamin Button” lifeline Spielberg/Milligan threw into a scene - only to amusingly, and to his endearing disappointment, have to reel back in again. Harry Day’s squelching sound effects also deserve mention, though it’s unclear whether that’s for better or worse. Ultimately, the first night of the “Improv Comedy Festival” wasn’t quite a tale of two cities, so much as a tale of one city that started feebly but then got better and better. Tighter set timings and a proper audience warm-up by the compère were needed to really nail it. Overall, a strong performance.