Well, it worked.
If that seems like a mild response to a great first show, it isn’t; our biggest concern with this show was that it was untested and untried, at least in this locale. Trying to do an entirely serious piece of improvised theatre is a bit unusual and not what audiences expect.
So what was the reaction on Monday when we wheeled out our atmospheric and weird tale of Lovecraftian horror? Pretty exactly what we hoped for. We’ve aimed to make the show as atmospheric and tense as possible – what we wanted was to send shivers down people’s spines when they are used to laughing. And that is what we seemed to elicit.
In fact, it’s becoming clear to us that laughter is the enemy here. Earlier in the show’s development it wasn’t clear whether we would relax the restriction to avoid laughs or not, closer to the show. One thing that Monday showed is that laughter allows the audience to relax – and the ratchetting up of tension works best when that release is denied.
When the oddly mangled Judy Garland track gave way to the tension-inducing intro rumble and Tim took to the lights to introduce the show, the audience was quiet… so quiet that it took a while to get a suggestion! Of course, it wasn’t an easy ask – looking for a word or concept. That’s something that we may tweak. Tim eventually picked “pointlessness” – which we sort of used (in the repetitive painting of the walls).
In the first five minutes there was a little laughter, but that soon went away when it wasn’t encouraged. Rob and Bridges started with a subdued opening platform-scene that set the mood and soon lead into the first flashback. The flashback is one of the big three things that we’ve worked on, so it was great to wheel one out early. The flashback scene added to the setting and though there were some strands thrown in that weren’t followed up, it worked well.
As the story moved on we saw instances of some Lovecraftian tropes: the academic (the aged professor Slocombe) who had his own flashback scene to set up his connection to the story; the scary foreigners (no racial stereotyping so common of Lovecraft, but still using that fear of the other); descent into madness, and genetic absolutism. There was a bit of a slump in the story about half way through, but as one member of the audience pointed out, that’s quite Lovecraftian in itself.
The improvised sound effects, music and lights from Jess added hugely to the overall ambiance. This may be a show where it is worth thinking seriously about moving from the black-box to something more encompassingly evocative when we come to a concerted run. The Lansdown, where our next show will take place (on Thursday 6th March) may well be a good venue for this. It certainly worked well for Murder She Didn’t Write – the improvised Murder Mystery from Only Humour.
There was little of the abstract physical theatre that is one of the other hallmarks of this show, but when mirroring was briefly used to support the delivery of a letter that Lindsey gave as the main character’s father, it seemed to have a real impact on the audience. There is something quite eerie about improvised choreography, which makes it a perfect fit for the show. That the show worked despite the limited abstract physicality, and also without any narration – the third hallmark of our approach – suggests to me that there is a good range of not only stories, but also story approaches, that this show can produce. Only time and further shows will tell.
The ending was built up to well, with the descent into madness of the main character mirrored by that of the Professor, leaving the worried friend to take up the mantle of the protagonist. In the end, the promise of a blood sacrifice was denied the audience. This may have been a misstep, but only a small one as the epilogue nicely book-ended the show in a satisfying way.
In conclusion, it was a really good first show. There are things for us to work on, and we have still to see how consistent the quality will be (though recent rehearsals do not leave me with much worry on that score), but I think that we should be well satisfied that we held an audience on the edge of their seats and left them with an improvised performance unlike any they are likely to have seen before!