The Oxford Imps: The Curious Case of The Improvised Musical

Sun 10th – Sun 24th August 2014

reviews

Molly Brown

at 15:29 on 19th Aug 2014

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Sit back and let “Agatha Christie”, a band, and a team of enthusiastic undergraduates cheer your morning. With a production of interactive murder mystery meets improv, The Curious Case of the Improvised Musical showcased the cream of Oxford’s improvisation crop trying their hand at some singing.

The show changes every day, depending on audience input - we saw a complex tangle of ex-lovers (including a fish chiropodist and a priest) hanker after a large diamond in the church vault (gift of Pope Benedict I). The band was excellent and the Imps themselves, not usually a musical theatre troupe, did admirably with the difficult task of composing on the spot. The song ‘He’s My Man’ bungled through by an actor in drag sporting a terrible red hat, was poor, but endearingly so, and rescued by the mewling of the stereotypical batty tea lady. Nonetheless, the Imps offered an excellent (and free!) alternative to the fringe's improvised musical staples. I giggled throughout.

But while The Curious Case of the Improvised Musical was unlike any improvised musical I have ever seen, that's not entirely a positive thing. Instead of the usual crowd warm up that asks us to yell ridiculous suggestions for titles, character names and random objects, the crowd input was done in advance, causing two problematic effects. Firstly, it alienated those of us who weren’t approached with a clip board (presumably in the queue outside?!); secondly, it cast doubt on the extent of the improvisation. Did the cast members already know that Mona had an obsession with eating black pudding in bed? While I trust that they didn’t – there was enough floundering to suggest as much – it was a shame to lose the zing provided by watching the instant reaction of actors to absurd heckles.

Possibly the decision was made to keep things short – the show lasted a zappy fifty minutes – or perhaps to appeal to a young audience less able to yell things out. Many of the suggestions were attributed to very little people, several of whom were sitting on the floor at the front. Live audience interaction was limited, particularly at the start, when we only got to choose the spooky location by the loudness of cheers from a selection of three – we collectively picked the vicarage.

Midway through the show the detective audience was invited to pose questions to the suspects, a slightly contrived device, but the grand finale, which allowed a particularly small volunteer to act Sherlock and correctly guess the murderer, was charming.

If you have little people in tow, definitely see this show. If you’re a bit bigger and keen for a giggle go along – if you’re awake at 10am that is…

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Oliver Collard

at 00:07 on 20th Aug 2014

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Cowgate is a totally different proposition the morning after the night before, by which I mean it is deserted. It was therefore impressive to see a packed house, presumably brought in by the prospect of an uplifting start to the day with the Oxford Imps. On balance, they probably got this uplifting start, but the Imps were not without their imperfections as they presented an improvised murder mystery in a vicarage.

With this detective plot, there were certain constraints which the show had to satisfy, creating a formulaic air that was not entirely assuaged by the cast’s gift for spontaneous gags and some lively compering from ‘Agatha Christie’ herself. Sometimes, the cleverness of the plot interfered with the comedy, as characters had to balance the difficult task of establishing a motive with making the audience laugh.

Stopping the show intermittently to ask for suggestions is always a mixed bag but it does seem to work here, putting the audience in the driving seat and not disrupting the flow of the comedy too obtrusively.

The major joy of the adventure that is improvisational theatre is its ramshackle comedy. This was evident in an abundance of wacky characters who were tenuously linked to Christie’s oeuvre: a businessman who made his fortune in fish chiropody, the sour observations of a tea-bearing religious zealot, and a bagpipe- playing Scotswoman who pretended to be British and then American.

The comic delivery and knowing self-awareness of the acting was comparably strong, occasionally producing jokes which would be judged well by any standard. Reverend Jackanory succeeded here, wryly observing when one character asked for marital advice, ‘of course, as someone who isn’t marrying, I have total agency to advise you over the matter’. Jokes like this probably saved the show in the end, keeping the audience on side even through some lacklustre musical interludes.

The biggest problem was on the musical side of things – a pretty major issue since it was supposed to be, well... a musical. The band were strong but the vocals were a bit stretched, which would have been okay if the songs were more consistently ambitious and funny.

Ultimately, I found myself confronting the Curious Case Of The Musical That Wasn’t Quite. It felt more like an improvised story with some songs bolted onto it. There are definitely some slicker musical outfits around this summer.

Misgivings aside, this was a good show to get you into the Fringe groove for the day ahead with plenty of japes and family friendly fun. It’s a different show every day and perhaps there’s only so much you can do with the stock tropes of an Agatha Christie novel.

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