The Phill Jupitus Experiment. Sounds avant-garde, doesn’t it? Well, first-off, don’t be fooled. This is improv, plain and simple; it’s possibly less experimental than normal improv as all the parameters are controlled, not by the random suggestions of the audience, but by the titular ‘Voice’ in his head, Deborah Frances-White.
The form is essentially this: a comedian knows nothing about what situations will be forced upon them. They walk in, are given a random scenario and ten seconds to change their clothes then be subjected to a roughly-ten-minute cross-examination by The Voice. If any of his answers displease The Voice, they will be subjected to a short beep and forced to come up with an alternative.
So far, so ‘Should Have Said’ but tonight, the results were distinctly mixed as Phill Jupitus took to the stage. With some situations, such as the swashbuckling cinema usher or the aging film producer, the character clicked immediately and proved fertile ground for some entertaining banter with The Voice. However others, such as the hungover accountant handcuffed to the gangster’s moll, failed to take and resulted only in a prolonged Jerry-Lewis-style accent.
It’s a pity because I’ve always found Phill Jupitus to be the most interesting of the panel show stand-ups. He regularly challenges himself, whether performing spoken word, opera or political theatre, a dedication to staying fresh which is extremely admirable.
As a challenge, Voices is a noble attempt to reinvigorate the improv tradition, but it’s not the right structure. The forced on-the-spot reaction to the bizarre scenarios is interesting but without another comedian on stage to help move the action along, the comedian is just shouting into the wind. When the action turns more dramatic in the final scene, the attempt to ratchet up the tension with a safe-word (for when the action becomes a little too personal) just feels a little self-indulgent.
On stage, with his improv chums to bounce off, Jupitus is likely to be an entirely different kettle of fish, but when left alone on stage, with only a disembodied voice for company, he’s sadly standard.