‘Improv Comedy’, for a genre whose very definition implies limitless scope, seems to be becoming an increasingly tired medium. An over-reliance on the safety net of “games” coupled with rigorous structuring can leave an audience wondering exactly what future improvisation has. Back at the Fringe for the fourth year running, ShellShock! has made a creditable attempt to revitalise by introducing a storybook element designed around the re-telling of fairy tales in alternative settings: the programme promises efforts a la ‘Three Little Tudor Pigs’ and ‘80s Cinderella’. This has handily broadened their demographic to include children.
The young troupe were led by the slightly older and irreverently titled ‘General Purpose’ who stage managed and orchestrated the majority of the show, as well as giving an explanation of what ‘is’ improv comedy at the opening.
This rather hands-on approach at times made the production seem clunky as actors were crudely summoned forth at first to perform a First World War version of Little Red Riding Hood after some rudimentary Whose Line-ism to open the show. This new plot included Private Red Riding Hood delivering “Frog cookies” to a Field marshal as well as a cunning ‘German spy’, an inexplicable pole vaulter and a star turn from a French cook who successfully introduced rat to Red Riding Hood’s recipe and the first genuinely plausible accent to the production.
The show was a little fraught by unpolished touches that begat an unwelcome am-dram atmosphere: Blustery delivery and a lack of timing also abounded when the scenes dragged a little; Edges of curtains were sought rather panickedly at exits, which could be haphazard and matched with the numerous delayed entries. The actors were competent and sporadically revealed both their comedic talents and their limitations; an audience request to speak in Chinese accents was so catastrophic it had to be averted by General Purpose at the next appropriate pause.
There were some standout performers: a harrumphing Field Marshall and a robotic Queen Victoria were both bit parts played with aplomb. The fairy tale ending managed to bring itself into some sort of cohesion with a surprising and unforeseen ease with all story arcs resolved with a clarity rarely seen in Improv shows.
Indeed, the eventual denouement being such a high point of the show suggested a looser hand from the show’s controller would have benefitted the stunted sections in the middle. By no stretch was it a failure but these youthful performers perhaps need to be imbibed with the confidence required to break loose and really bring their reasonably innovative but currently hampered show to life.