first night

Durham Improvised Musical

Felix Stevenson's sensibilities are tested by some risqué moments from DIM's new lineup.

DST’s choice to kick start the theatre year with DIM was in many ways a risky one, what with the group only recently being assembled and with a member of the cast missing. But if you thought this would be the only perilous decision then you would be advised – after the musical’s title was announced as The Erotic Adventures of William Shakespeare – to think again. What DIM put on was one of the most risqué performances ever to have ‘graced’ the Assembly Rooms stage, certainly in the last two years. With hallmarks of Sacha Baron Cohen’s style of humour, this was a performance not for the faint hearted – and certainly not for Indians.

After agreeing with the audience that the musical must take place by the Taj Mahal, ‘Will’ Shakespeare (James Hyde) and Jemima (Caitlin McEwan) started us off with a sweet, if a little nervy, encounter that finished with Will explaining he had lost his spark for writing poetry. It was a romantic beginning, set in a tranquil setting that had the hallmarks of a fairly innocent – tame, even – take on an agreed adult-themed title. However, Elissa Churchill’s opener to the second scene, as a gardener with Nat Goodwin, annihilated such notions with a line that had so many F-words it made Gordon Ramsey’s outburst, after dropping his tiramisu in last seasons Hell’s Kitchen, look subdued. The show never really recovered.

Despite moving the musical’s genre from a CBBC-type family show to an X-rated production found on an obscure channel that only comes alive after 11pm, Churchill and Goodwin must be commended for bringing some much needed energy and characterisation to the table, as they went about tending to the Taj Mahal’s garden and evoking their displeasure as to why the petunias wouldn’t grow. Overall, the voices of all three of the actresses were hugely impressive. Each rendered a different style and tone that emphasised the differentiations between every one of their characters, and thus provided the ensemble with much needed improvisational options.

If the gardeners were guilty of changing the tone of the language, John Muething’s character, as the widower, found a place – or nation – at which to direct it. After his attempt to sabotage the garden in revenge for the death of his wife was foiled, he began, in what can only be described as a tirade, in slandering the Indian people. It seemed others in the cast shared this particular lack of international diplomacy, as the Indian culture took a severe battering throughout the night, with lines such as, “we’re Indian, we eat curry” being delivered with the infamous subtlety that Frankie Boyle has become renowned for.

As the ‘storyline’ shifted back to Hyde and McEwan it became clear they too wanted some of the ‘action’. After announcing the only way he could regain his poetic spark was by writing pornographic material based on her, and then promptly taking her to a bedroom in a nearby hotel, you knew the cast had gone to a place of no return. The storyline, not helped by the title, had unravelled into a hodgepodge of schoolboy humour surrounding the overdone, cliché ridden, body of material that is sex. Hyde’s truly valiant attempt to bridge the different storylines, and make sense of Muething’s character by calling him Romeo, who up until then had been seriously floundering, was a real sign of dramatic maturity. This was by far and away the best scene, as it demonstrated not just great improvisational skills, but also the demand for individual support when performing in an ensemble. Despite these efforts, as we entered the final quarter, the wheels really began to fall off – and where better to finish this rather regrettable tale then in a brothel?

Despite quite obviously identifying the errors in their storytelling, the cast continued to get the job done with a rendition of ‘Indian Whore’, which featured the suitably horrific line: “what if one of them breaks?” With the musical coming to a close – ‘Will’ Shakespeare replacing the forgotten-about Jemima with a prostitute wife and Romeo replacing Juliet with two prostitute wives – you couldn’t help but think what might have been. The talent was unquestionable; the music, with the trusted help of Jo Turner on the keyboard, was in general pretty good, as was Daniel Gosselin’s lighting design. However, whilst not being dreadful, with this crop of superb actors you know DIM can do better. And with a whole year ahead and a returning cast member, they will.

Felix Stevenson


5 October 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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