‘Present mirth hath present laughter. What's to come is still unsure’ Act II, Scene II, Twelfth Night
Bristol Improv’s longform narrative Keeping up with Bristol Improv had a bold and applaudable vision: “a show produced, directed and performed entirely by women and people of other oppressed genders”. This should have been brave new age for the conservative world of comedy. It is not. Such a laudable vision for a new idea requires a rethink in the delivery of often extremely predictable and overdone comedic material. It should have shattered our expectations of Mirandaesque shenanigans and, through the guise of comedy, explored this vision with us during the hour-long piece. Instead, the cast adopts the rigidly prescriptive and utterly banal formula of comedies gone by.
Moreover, for the most part, this formula is poorly executed, and the narrative lacks the professionalism which is crucial for a funny show. Although rigidly blocked, the dialogue, chemistry and badinage between cast members is distinctly lacking. Improv is a difficult comedy art to master, and requires a deceptive amount of preparation, none of which is evident in Keeping up with Bristol Improv. Smart ideas such as including a Big Brother-esque diary room are poorly executed, and opportunities to make savvy lampoons are consistently missed. For me, this plethora of missed comedic opportunity is the saddest part. The paradigm of this is the heightened received pronunciation that (for whatever reason) the majority of the cast decide to adopt. This could have easily metamorphosed into a witty off-the-cuff lampoon on the Stoke Bishop class, for example. Yet, ironically, the cast are reticent to be too impromptu and keep a white-knuckle grip on their esoteric and un-relatable characters so that we’re not allowed to see the coal face of comedy. Instead, we are kept at an arms-length through double entendre, ill-timed retorts and corny cracker jokes.
The hackneyed choice of a beauty pageant for the setting of the improv could have allowed the cast to branch into an utterly original comedic direction, rather than relying on age-old character tropes. However, each character relies on a single, dogmatic character trait, which naturally quickly become platitudinous. There is a gaping hole in character development, and a schizophrenic slipping into and out of character creates a fractured and incongruous atmosphere. It is difficult to keep concentration whilst events in the led up to the beauty pageant unfold, which in the intimate Pegg Theatre is normally not a problem.
The narrative is a pastiche of a thankfully bygone age of comedy, when characters were built around a single stereotype. In Keeping up with Bristol Improv, there is the arrogant one, the talented one, the kooky one, the butch one – the list goes on. Tastes and standards nowadays require more wholistic, multi-faceted characters, but this is what the directors crucially fail to grasp, and in so doing, have created a piece with all the puerile gags of a Radio 4 panel-show: I half expected Gyles Brandreth to appear in cameo.
The cast hoped to rely upon a frolicsome atmosphere to rectify their threadbare performance, and, fortunately for them, they’re blessed with a gracious audience whose laughter covered the more excruciating moments of amateurish repartee, which normally would be enough for a night of amateur comedy. However, with their bold vision, we must hold this to a higher-standard: I was excited to see a microcosmic social revolution through the genre of side-splitting comedy, but was left unfulfilled and bitterly disappointed.
Featuring an all-female cast, this show had the opportunity to strike a bold new direction for student comedy. However, through bathos setting and ham-fisted delivery, Keeping up with Bristol Improv teaches us one thing: the revolution will not be improvised.
George Ruskin, Theatre Editor