Watching actors improvise can be the most fun thing ever. In a way, it’s difficult not to have a good time. When things go wrong it’s funny, when things go right it can be wonderful. Whilst Bristol Improv are not the finest improv troupe to hit the Fringe, they certainly have skills. Props are central to their act, deciding not only an individual’s performance but the entire direction their story can take. A volcano was the central object on the day I visited. A volcano resting under a medieval city, ruled by a despotic king and his patricidal son. It was fun, there’s no doubt about that.
Yet the quality an improvised performance must have is energy. You can’t expect ad-libbed comedy material to sparkle evenly, but with the necessary pace the lines that don’t work can get swept up and quickly forgotten. Whilst some performers were clearly committed to the moment, others seemed to be lost, unable to tap into their colleague’s sense of the rhythm of each emerging scene. It meant that, often, the stand-out exchanges were the ones meta-comically questioning someone’s choice of phrase or prop, and whilst this kind of self-awareness is a successful comic technique it meant that the real moments of wit were undermined.
It’s significant that some of the best moments of comic ingenuity came from the lighting desk, cutting to black when a scene was flagging, or after a line best left isolated. Bristol Improv do know how to have fun together onstage, and to include the audience in it, but when the best jokes are about the things going wrong, something is, well, going wrong. Yet, such is the wonderful nature of improv – on the day you see them, they might be sensational. My suggestion is that they probably won’t be, but it will still be quite fun.