You’d be forgiven for thinking that Spontaneous Potter, from the eponymous Spontaneous Players, is just another improvised twist on a cultural classic. It’s easy to imagine a show that relies too heavily on the source material, is inaccessible for a casual audience, and feels lazy around the edges. Instead, Spontaneous Potter showcases faultless performers at the height of their magical powers. For those less familiar with Potter, expect an enjoyable evening of assured comedy (and refreshingly less assured when the laughs ask for it); for the die-hard Hogwarts acolytes, pack a defibrillator: the room echoes with twenty-somethings crying out “I can’t breathe,” and slapping their knees so hard they’ll bruise by morning. It sounds hyperbolic, but this show might genuinely kill someone.
Faultless performers at the height of their magical powers.
The Spontaneous Players are rock stars in boarding school gowns, and arrive on stage to thunderous applause and the trademark Potter mix of strings and choral music, selecting an audience-suggested title for their new Harry Potter adventure from—what else?—the Sorting Hat. In this case, the title was ‘Harry Potter and the Trip Across the World in a Bucket’, the show narrowly avoiding a glut of more lewd suggestions (I hope by suggesting the phrase ‘wand innuendo’ that you can fill in the rest). It does seem odd that the performers only take one suggestion for their whole show, in contrast to typical improv formats of combining at least three bizarre qualities, with the game normally being to reconcile all the nonsense; here there is only one prompt. This is remedied to some extent by the performers, as far as the audience can tell, running with the very first slip of paper they take out of the hat, no ifs, no buts.
That said, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more than enough imagination among the cast to skip some suggestion-taking admin and get right to the comedy. The real magic of Spontaneous Potter is its delicate tightrope walk between enjoying the characters, locations and mythology close to the hearts of so many while also sticking the knife in where it’s deserved. The performers riff on the many unexplained aspects of the wizarding world, such as whether or not Hogwarts accepts mature students, and ingeniously dissect the metaphysical aspects of the Polyjuice potion: if it alters your physical attributes, like your hands, does it alter your brain? But it’s clear the mind of the user is retained in the transformation, even if their physical brain is changed. “Is there a soul?”
This is not to suggest that the humour of the show is purely philosophical. When Hermione describes Lucky Charms as “the devil’s cum,” it becomes immediately clear this isn’t a family show. Malfoy is having an existential crisis, Ron and Hermione are struggling with their work/life balance, and F-bombs slip from the performers more easily than Expelliarmus. There was a tendency, with the Harry Potter book series and films in particular, to observe that the audience grew up with the characters: the boy wizard began to battle not only the Dark Lord and Helena Bonham-Carter, but also the perils of acne and dating. Spontaneous Potter goes further, retrofitting familiar characters with now-familiar worries, with a large scoop of silliness on the side. Crabbe, a bland Malfoy lackey in the Potterverse, wants to make something of himself, even if his dream is to go to the moon in a rocket made of buckets.
This particular show ended as many improv narratives do: in a fashion so completely convoluted it comes back around and starts to make sense again. Dumbledore tricked Malfoy, and Ron and Hermione, to travel to space in two separate rockets, the geostationary orbits of which would create the correct harmonic resonance to spread Dumbledore’s drum music to all the wizarding schools of the world, defeating all the dark wizards, yada yada. This ‘Drumbledore’ affair was by far the audience’s favourite part of the evening and, remarkably, they stood and drummed along with the performers on stage when invited to do so. And it turns out, when 200 people are united, communicating in a language unique to this very period in time, it really does create something magical. Even if it’s nothing more than slapping on some furniture.
As one of the performers said of this moment, in a slip of genuine sincerity, “This is fucking jaw-dropping.” That might not be the most useful pull quote for the show, but it’s accurate: Spontaneous Potter is improv at its very best.