The Water Poet was easy to spot on Saturday afternoon. It was, after all, the only pub surrounded by improv comedy groups warming up. I weaved between tight circles of people passing energy back and forth or engaging in ritualistic dances, then navigated through the football-centric ground floor of the pub, and finally descended the stairs into the Shoreditch Improv Festival.
One sketch, set inside an f-word factory, called upon workers from the audience, forcing prepared lines to intermingle with off-the-cuff banter that consistently entertained.
Over the course of three and a half hours, I enjoyed performances by 8 of the 29 different groups booked for the weekend, each monopolizing the stage for 15-25 minutes. The time constraints inhibited the ambitions of some teams, but allowed the festival to quickly showcase a broad range of styles, with each performance bringing something different to the basement venue.
One innovative group was The Coaterie, who blend sketch and improv comedy together via audience interaction. While their pure sketches impressed, they really shone when they brought audience members into the fray. One sketch, set inside an f-word factory, called upon workers from the audience, forcing prepared lines to intermingle with off-the-cuff banter that consistently entertained.
Another stand-out, Classic Andy, advertise with a gimmick (“taking a suggestion of someone you know and something they always do”), but instead showed off a long-form piece based on a location. Even among similar groups, their intelligence and trust was on another level. That allowed them to set each other up for interesting punch lines, knowing the other actor would pick it up.
Not every group was at that level. The afternoon’s opening act was Postscript, who drew inspiration from books. Unfortunately, that idea felt tagged on rather than central to the process, and the scenes, while diverting, fell into many pitfalls of bad improv, with performers describing their actions and shoehorning in exposition.
Merlin’s beard, from the University of Kent, was another difficult one. Though using just two performers for the show, the scene relied on a number of different characters, and a gimmick (use of flashbacks) that could have used more scene setting. Without other actors, it was impossible to cut away from low points in the show, but they were effective when settled into longer two-person scenes.
Joining the above-mentioned groups were Very Serious People (who improvise a B-movie), Clusterfox (who do long-form improv based on an audience-chosen location), Careless Vespa (who draw inspiration from news stories) and City Impro, who showed off several short-form games as well as organising the festival. In doing so, they’ve provided another venue for the appreciation of the varied types of improv and improvisers. Look out for the Shoreditch Improv Festival in 2018.