'Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature' Act III Scene II, Hamlet
Every other Monday at The Wardrobe Theatre, we get Closer Each Day. It's the fortnightly improvised soap opera which prides itself on being the world's longest running improvised narrative, as well as a local favourite. A rotating cast of characters take the audience through twists of farce, sentimentality and music. And at the end they leave you pretty much where you started, but happier for it.
A few minutes before the scheduled start time, the queue to the performance theatre (situated at the back of The Old Market Assembly pub) had snaked round several corners of wood panelled walkway and had me hemmed into a 'nook' in anticipation. This was important for two reasons. Firstly, I had not expected such a large crowd for a Monday night performance. The promos said it had a cult following but I'd thought this was typical promotional messaging. Secondly, like a cluster of other words, 'nook' became a recurring joke in the episode. Did the uneasy fixation to utter 'nook' come from the actor or the character they played? I don't think anyone cared through the laughter.
The characters brought to life for the audience's viewing were true to the genre's form and eager to entertain. Set in 'Newtown', the vaguest of towns, we had numerous roles perform before us. The best of which included the Pub landlady Gina chit-chatting with Brad - a simple man with a penchant for best forgotten '90s fads, and Arthur Shaw (IT salesman by way of Thomas the Tank Engine) crushing on the timid bookstore owner Eliza. Eliza in turn was stuck waiting for a bus that would never come. Joining her was Candi, a girl cruelly torn from the wastes of East-enders replete with denim outfit and dirty mouth. Finally Reg and Constance sauntered into the mix. The audience were given to understand that 'previously...' their heads were hair-gelled together, and so they remained enmeshed at the temples for most of the evening. Again, it was not important as to which side of their heads were glued from scene to scene.
The character duos would start a scene from scratch and try to ease their way into interesting conversation. When the interaction dried up, lights faded to black and the audience were segued into a new situation with a new set of characters. Gradually this rotation evolved into a hodgepodge narrative of events; by the 45 minute mark, the whole cast arrived in the local pub to reflect on whatever glimmers of truth they had learnt about themselves, and set up the arc for the next episode.
All of this was excellently supported by the A/V team, who supplied extra dimensions to the evening using light changes and impressively nuanced keyboard freestyles. In one scene, a saucy keyboard groove set the groundwork for a soul sing-off between Reg and Constance, whom with no former indication were inspired to sing in the park they were visiting. The park itself had been invented by the couple about 30 seconds prior.
Similarly, a recurring feature was the abruptly bringing the stage into darkness as soon as dialogues approached an impasse to development. Seen as a divine intervention in a tight spot, this act of mercy got a wry chuckle from both performers and audience, and put the emphasis on the next pair of actors to keep the momentum going.
As much as explaining the jokes is a fun pastime of criticism, anticipation is really the driving force of the improv here and I would recommend you give it a try. There is always an edge of fear that the dialogue will fall flat or stop completely. That is the nature of all improvised shows and Closer Each Day is no exception. However, the crew is skilful and warm enough to win the crowd over before the action even starts (bringing drinks from the pub helps too, I may note). From there, much of the humour lies in knowing that the cast is barely one step ahead of you. This jeopardy gets extended to new lengths when you have to watch them eat their own mistakes (such as inventing farcical back-stories), or when you see a fellow cast member throw them a life-line only to reel it back in again.
As each episode goes on the pretence of the show slowly deteriorates but not at the cost of the entertainment. Thankfully, the talent of this particular group is that while some deliveries or character combinations may miss the mark, there's rarely an awkward silence or a chance for the positive energy to leak from the room.
So the show deserves its local cult status. And at over five years and 120 episodes, I can't help wonder where it's been and where it will go. The joy is in the not knowing.
Omid Bagherli, MA English Literature