Aaaand Now For Something Completely Improvised

Sun 12th May – Sun 21st July 2013

reviews

Joshua Phillips

at 00:10 on 13th May 2013

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How does one go about reviewing a show that is entirely improvised? What does one write about, when every show is going to be different from its prior iteration: perhaps completely, and perhaps in subtle nuance? What does one read a review of improv for? Having read the review, any show that you see will never quite be the same as the show that you read the review of. And, perhaps most pressingly, how does one use this meta-dramatic spiel as a lead-in to an actual review about an actual performance?

One thing can be said about Racing Minds’ performance as a troupe: they’re sharp. And so they should be, with three of the four of them having done time in the Oxford Imps, and all four of them being accomplished comedians in their own right. The troupe is a strong one, and their chemistry is visible as their act lurches from gag to gag: they support one another well, and the inevitable misfires that are part of any improv act are handled deftly.

The premise of the show is simple. At the start, we see an elderly grandparent telling his children a story. The only problem is, he can’t remember a thing about it. Cue audience participation. The audience fills in the details, providing names, places and dark secrets. Racing Minds’ minds race as jokes fly across the stage, and the actors join these dots and fleshing out a skeleton of an image into a farcical picture.

Comedy comes thick and fast, as a revolving cast of characters fade on and off the stage. First comes the best dancer in all of “the popular Oxford club, Babylove”, played by Tom Skelton, director of the Imps, and an outraged onlooker, played by Dougie Walker. Another duo takes the form of Daniel Roberts, who plays a jungle-dwelling English gentleman, obsessed with fantastic beasts and how to kill them – and his ‘son’, Bobbie, played by Chris Turner. Over the course of an hour, these two pairs act out their farcical acts. It’s not perfect, of course. By the very nature of improv comedy, it will never be: some bits will always feel slower, less funny, patchier than others. And there are moments where it feels like the whole thing is a homage to Monty Python, especially when incidental characters are introduced: they feel somewhat like the little effervescent caricatures that the Pythons did so well. However, British comedy is indelibly etched with the Pythons, such was their influence, and every sketch act seems either to be working under the auspices of Cleese and co., or trying to escape from them.

Maybe instead of asking why it is that we review improv comedies, or why we read these reviews, we ought to ask why it is that we see them. Racing Minds have produced something that is a rare treat: deliciously watchable, compulsively laughable and, above all, bloody good fun. Perhaps that’s the heart of the mystery, why we go and watch improv. It’s bloody good fun.

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Alexandra Sutton

at 11:39 on 13th May 2013

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It's a funny old thing, improvised comedy. The immediacy of it demands more from both crowd and comedian than other formats; they have to be at their sharpest whilst we have to be at our most receptive. Unless you're in safe hands, it can make for a pretty highly strung evening. Fortunately, the extremely fertile brains of comedy troupe Racing Minds manage to cultivate this delicate atmosphere in their show "Aand now for something completely improvised."

Entering pseudo-modern-bar-pub The Bullingdon Arms, we are greeted by four frantic young chaps, suited and booted and speaking entirely in mock RP. One of them gives me a sweet, sits me down, and away we go. Watching Racing Minds is like being wrenched out of your uncomfortable pleather bar seat and deposited into the imagination of a surreal children's author. Albeit a children's author with a fondness for pop culture and hallucenogenic drugs. The storytelling conceit is a good one - forgetful old Grandpa Tom Skelton takes centre stage and tells us a tale, built purely on the suggestions of the audience. From "Percival", "Giant Turtle" and "Local Oxford Club Babylove" the quartet manage to create an hour of coherent comedy.

The foursome have racked up experience and it shows - they are quick witted, occasionally agile and extremely creative. Despite their considerable skills, they manage to retain the innate sense of silliness that improv's all about. In one scene, Skelton manages to recreate the atmosphere of Babylove by gyrating manically on an imagined pole, and in another, Dougie Walker (in an oddly compelling performance) becomes the fifth ninja turtle "Botticelli". This shared frame of personal and cultural reference entertains both the performers and their audience - we are thankful for the familiarity.

However, these notes of familiarity are often a little too strong - I stop thinking of them as individual performers and play at guessing their influences. A bit of The League of Gentlemen here, some Izzard there... One wonders if and when their considerable debt to Python will ever be paid off. Naturally, there are some overlong scenes and some characters misjudged (Frank Spencer parodies are just annoying), but on the whole the group carry off the hour well. Let's face it, with a prop box of a pipe, a feather boa and a toy gun, they are always going to come up with something.

I chuckle my way through to be sure, but that's the thing with improv - we will them to succeed and marvel at the novelty when they do. Racing Minds are entertaining and they are comfortable, but with a little more innovation and a little less reliance on their comedic heritage, they could be so much more. I'll definitely be keeping my eye on them, hopefully they'll surprise, or even better, unsettle an audience soon.

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