This weekend the Extempore Theatre company brought their eighth annual 50-hour improvathon to the LOST theatre in Stockwell, with support from an assortment of other noted improvisers and a dash of stardust in the form of the influential American comedy duo the Pyjama Men.
The format was uncomplicated but impressive: 50 straight hours of improvised comedy, broken into 2-hour chunks, with a cast of around 30 accompanied by a small band. The action centred around the misadventures of a down-on-its-luck movie studio called ‘Sleepless Studios’, purveyors of shamelessly derivative horror B-movies. Ted Wood, studio bigwig and winner of the 1979 Oscar for Best Horror Remake (the only year the category existed), played by Improvathon veteran Mark Meer, has a plan to turn the fortunes of the studio around with an all-star(ish) remake of their only hit, Botany on the Mutant. Helping him are a motley band of faded stars and starlets, a leading man with a sideline in perverted criminal shenanigans, various odd-job men and runners, and Jenny Agguter.
With this framework established very early on, members of the cast were thrown every few minutes into a new scene and allowed to improvise around their characters, building implied back stories and organically developing relationships and running themes and jokes. The amount of energy being generated on stage, and reflected by an enthusiastic audience, was striking – there appeared to be no question of the actors pacing themselves for the long haul ahead. Occasionally this energy tipped over into freneticism, and it was at these times that the experience of some of the veteran improvisers came to the fore. Mark Meer and the Pyjama Men stood out as having the ability to command the stage and direct proceedings, and the confidence to understate their performances and wallow in pauses rather than hurrying to fill them. Every time they were in a scene it was elevated, with the other players and the audience thriving off their assurance and tremendous comic timing. A couple of the scenes in which they weren’t present sagged a little, but such was the level of support from the audience that it never reached anything approaching awkwardness.
I was only able to attend the opening session so I can only imagine how proceedings developed as the audience and the actors built a rapport and later, presumably, began to flirt with altered states of consciousness as two days without sleep began to take their toll. On the basis of what I saw, though, and judging by the rapturous engagement of the audience in the early stages, those who stayed the course would have been decently rewarded for their stamina.