It is surely impossible that anyone might leave without a smile across their face.
We begin with the compere-come-narrator (Dylan Emery) introducing the format to those not familiar. A big West End producer “has an empty theatre” and requires us to write a brand new musical in the space of 70 minutes with the cast’s expert help. We are asked for a location – tonight we have the gladiator’s ring – and a number of musicals or composers to serve as inspiration for the numbers – in this case, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Little Shop of Horrors, Fame and Dear Evan Hansen. Such a stylistic mix only goes to further prove the troop's flexibility. No suggestion, within reason, gets dismissed. It is hard to imagine the preparations that must go into making sure every cast members and every band member is acquainted with every variation that could possibly arise.
The magic of this show is derived from the acceptance of chaos. Having seen a handful of Showstopper! performances all the stories happily embrace implausibility and somewhat messy plot-building with a wink and a nudge to the audience. This isn’t a criticism; it is thoroughly charming – indeed probably what has created the Showstopper’s strong brand identity. Some of the vocal performances would rival those on the West End, most notably from Lucy Trodd and Andrew Pugsley.
The Showstoppers do not shy away from a challenge. Singing in harmony, combining different songs from a single musical into one number, and following musical theatre tropes, like stopping for dialogue in the middle of a song, lift most of the numbers from the average improvised fare to something that competes with scripted work. At one point Emery called for the audience to suggest a bombastic musical fit to introduce the character of a Roman Caesar. When Pirates of Penzance was called it seemed the cast would have a tough time fitting that into the brief yet we were about to view perhaps the most impressive improvisation to date when Ruth Bratt broke into a tune so compelling she had the audience joining in by the second refrain.
It was disappointing to see a few numbers thrown away with weak, repetitive lyrics and tunes and it seems the cast have a little work to do on the non-comedy numbers. Pippa Evans gave an exceptionally strong physical performance, and has a powerful and compelling voice but seemed a little lost in the romantic female lead numbers, inspired by Little Shop of Horrors and Dear Evan Hansen, which added little to the plot. Perhaps in any other setting it would be outstandingly impressive, but the standard is high on this stage.
Finally, special mention must go to the band who are quite literally awe inspiring. With no chance to confer with each other or the cast, they both lead and are lead seamlessly throughout the performance. The talent to be able to so closely mimic the stylings of a hundred different tunes, while suiting the mood of the scene and keeping in time with the cast’s whims, must be seen to be believed.
There are probably improvised shows out there that do a better job of story building, but I have seen few that combine so many elements of exceptional showmanship to create such an outstanding final product. Showstopper! isn’t about finesse, it is about heart and hard slog; stories that might not be wholly perfected, but flow easily and are delightful to hear; songs that are funny and catchy, sometimes complex, sometimes simple; actors who (at least seem) to be having the time of their lives; a band worth its weight in gold and an improvising technical team whom you don’t notice, meaning they are excellent at their jobs. The show might not always be pitch-perfect, but it is surely impossible that anyone might leave without a smile across their face.