What the Dickens!

Thu 6th – Sun 30th August 2015

reviews

Michael Roderick

at 10:02 on 15th Aug 2015

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The relationship between improvised comedy and classic novels is strong this year. The gentle world of Jane Austin has been used to riotous effect in ‘Austentatious’. No less successful and no less riotous is ‘What The Dickens’, masterfully conceived by Cambridge University’s ‘Impronaughts’. Like Austentatious, this piece hijacks the classic tropes and tones of its namesake author and makes something utterly absurd from it. Not being much of Dickens fan and with only bad experiences of improvised comedy, I was initially skeptical. By the finale, I was utterly converted (to improvised comedy, if not to Dickens).

The set-up, as you’ve probably gleaned, is fairly straightforward. Initially, we are introduced to the man himself, Charles John Huffam Dickens, played hilariously by Ted Hill, who is identifiable as a Victorian only by his preposterously unreal top hat. He implores the audience to help him compose a new novel, asking for a title and a character name. We dutifully submit our suggestions and the title is chosen: ‘Little Merit’ (kudos to the witty audience member who thought of that). The character is to be called ‘Scruples the Scrupulous’. It is then decided that the story should contain mushrooms. What follows is truly marvellous. It would of course be absurd for me to give you a plot summary of this particular farce, but the piece never falls flat and the comedy is always inventive and sharp; the awkward moments are exploited to their full hilarious potential. This being a Dickens parody, you should expect deformed or orphaned children, grotesque scroungers and bumbling milords, and weird combinations of cruelty and sentiment. The costumes were wonderfully woeful, with the actors forced to confront ever more ludicrous scenarios with increasing hilarity.

All the actors were evidently capable although, as is to be expected, some stole the limelight. Colin Rothwell’s lugubriosity , his sardonic commentary on the other characters movements and imaginings, almost had me in tears. Coming in close second were Ted Hill, as Elcock, whose persona was marvellously gormless. Haydn Jenkins played the titular Little Merit and Sam Brain played his neighbour, Little Faith; it was disappointing that both were much quieter than the rest, but they still performed very well. Hayley Johnson was also less visible, but around the halfway mark she became Scruples and there followed a hilarious scene between her and Elcock that involved a blue mushroom, several volumes of bizarre encyclopaedias and odd reading habits.

Why pass up a chance to see a group as wickedly talented as this?

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Ed Grimble

at 10:50 on 15th Aug 2015

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The premise: One of the England’s greatest writers is under pressure from his publishers. The public at large have lost their once voracious appetite for his fiction, and the task of writing a new novel that will inject the author’s career with a new verve has been set. And so, Charles Dickens (Ted Hill), clad in a charmingly rough and ready top hat, invokes the creativity of the audience in the hopes of conjuring up a Victorian best-seller. Excruciating puns are hastily scribbled on scraps of paper and cast into a hat, from which one is selected. The title of this new literary masterpiece is read triumphantly aloud, and Little Merit is loosed upon the world.

Over the next hour, the cast of the Cambridge Impronauts descend into the brutal world of cavernous class divides, impoverished workers and ruthless landowners, and the shadowy criminal underbelly of Victorian London. Oh, and there’s also a surprisingly well-spoken elephant. Waistcoats are hurriedly thrown on and off, and inappropriate headgear becomes more and more the onstage norm, as a thick and winding plot begins to take shape before the eyes of the audience.

Presenting an improvised play brings colossal challenges for performers. Unlike a regular show with a rehearsal process in which tricky syntactical instances can be ironed out and mastered, an improvised show necessitates no small degree of verbal dexterity on the part of its players. Metaphors and the like must glide effortlessly from the tongue, lest the dialogue all feel just a little bit stunted and jarring. The Impronauts do, then, for the most part, perform with a communicative clarity which is admirable. The pace of the troupe’s show is also at the heart of its success. Although unexpected hiccups like a bizarrely interpreted mime or a name comically misremembered do plague the show and threaten to hinder its progression, the cast on the whole do a sterling job of keeping alive a plot which is unfolding very much into the unknown.

The strength of the show is maintained by the hugely talented Ted Hill and Colin Rothwell. Both came to be relied upon to rescue Little Merit from any potential narrative dead ends and, in a display of talent that bordered on the incredulous, the latter seemed for a long while incapable of saying anything which didn't leave the audience in fits of laughter.

This show will without a doubt put to bed any doubts that you may have about the success of Improv comedy, carrying as it sometimes does a stigma of being, well, a bit ropey. To paraphrase the man himself, then, ’Please Impronauts, we want some more…

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