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Showstopper! The Improvised Musical
Published on Friday, 20 August 2010

5 stars

Gilded Balloon Teviot (venue website)
6-29 Aug (not 18), 10:50pm (12:00am)
Reviewed by Lee Zhuo Zhao

For those of you not familiar with premise of Showstopper, let me bring you quickly up to speed. A writer has an hour to come up with a musical from scratch, to meet a deadline set by an unseen producer. So – armed with suggestions taken from the audience for the theme, starting location, song styles and title –  the writer directs the "showstoppers" as they set about improvising a brand new musical, all done on the night before your very eyes.

Well, sort-of before your very eyes. Improv purists will be quick to point out that the actors are clearly conferring off-stage, and the "writer" character oversteps many of the duties of a usual improv host; he's able to bail and reset scenes that are going awry, and single-handedly dictate the course of the plot.

However, I doubt many patrons will mind, since the finished product is a musical of the same standard as many of those brought to the Fringe in the conventional way – carefully written over the course of weeks. The plot is tight, the characters developed, the book and lyrics coherent, and the music quite memorable (though by the very nature of an improvised musical, this is usually only because tunes tend to be repeated quite a lot).

To be honest, about twenty minutes in, I was beginning to worry I'd come on an off-night.  The suggestions weren't particularly off-the-wall: a dating agency in Faliraki, Greece.  Yet Sean McCann, playing the 'writer', had just asked for a crucial part of a scene to be redone.  Two incredibly moving and well-acted scenes and one utterly breathtaking song later, I was won over: I had honestly formed a connection with the characters, and was rooting for them to resolve all the plot tensions before time ran out.

They'd pulled it out of the bag.  The Squeeze, the title for the night, turned out not to be a manic, laugh-a-minute farce – the sort of thing that flourishes in improv show – but a rare comedy musical with true emotional weight and an engrossing plot.

These guys are simply in a league of their own.  They make writing the book, lyrics and music for a musical look so easy, that you feel anyone could just pick up their pen and bring one to the Fringe.  And trust me, that's just not true!  Many will be impressed that the actors successfully rhymed virtually all their song lyrics, but I find it more impressive still that two musicians, Duncan Walsh-Atkins and Chris Ash, manage to improvise the entire score – having to adapt to the lyrics as they come along, and accommodate the audience's choice of music style.

By the nature of this being an improvised show, there is an element of randomness to the quality of each performance, and statistically speaking there must come a day when things just don't happen and the end result is less than first-rate.  But by showing what they can do even when the chips are down, I'm left in doubt I'll ever see it.  Right now, and no matter who you are, Showstopper! The Improvised Musical remains one of the absolute must-see shows on the Fringe.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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