first night

A Christmas Cock-Up

Lucy Knight gives her take on Durham Improvised Musical's latest outing.

Durham Improvised Musical does exactly what it says on the tin: they take a title, a location, and a song title from the audience, and use these as the backbone for a brand new, hour-long musical, made up by the performers on the spot. Their self-proclaimed Christmas Cock-Up was no exception, apart from an entertainingly festive opening, with pianist Alex Bromwich disgruntledly carrying a rather pathetic-looking plastic Christmas tree onto the stage. The actors then entered, carol singing, from the darkened aisles, and the troupe stuck to their winning formula to create a hilariously bizarre hour of theatre for our enjoyment.

The audience were encouraged to come up with ‘Christmassy’ ideas for the title, setting, and song; it was decided upon that the musical A Christmas Carol Vorderman would be set in Heathrow Airport, and would include the song ‘My Tinsel’s Made of Bones’. No sooner had these details been decided, the talented troupe of performers set to work creating the atmosphere of a busy airport at Christmastime, filled with discontented travellers complaining about delayed flights. After the opening song, the cast went on to create a fabulously far-fetched plot, which centred around the plight of ‘Bob’, Carol Vorderman’s ex-husband played by Joe McWilliam, to get his wife and children back. While waiting for a flight with his mother (Sophie Forster), Bob happens to bump into Father Christmas (Charlie Keable), who, as one might expect from good ol’ Santa Claus, grants him a wish, and he agrees to help Bob win Carol back. As one might not expect, however, Santa also reveals his identity as ‘a mediator between Heaven and Hell’, and, in a strangely Faustian turn of events, Bob ends up selling his soul to Sam Baumal’s gorgeously camp depiction of the Devil, in exchange for winning Carol’s love back. Both Carol Vorderman (Elle Morgan-Williams) and her daughter (Finola Southgate), along with her unnamed love interest (Baumal), also fortuitously happen to arrive at Heathrow during the course of the show’s events, and after Carol has been adorned with soul-sucking bone-tinsel, and has given birth on stage (a peculiar plot twist enacted due to Keable’s use of ‘Santa Magic’ to progress her pregnancy by three months), the whole family is reunited, and the musical reaches its raucously happy conclusion.

The entire ensemble showed fantastic onstage chemistry, and all six of them performed with great energy and confidence, consistently making the audience laugh through eccentric characterisation, witty song lyrics, and physical comedy. Whilst all being technically competent singers and talented actors, the cast did not take themselves too seriously, and they seemed to be enjoying the performance as much as we were, never afraid to break the fourth wall or to acknowledge a slight continuity slip-up. Their playful performance style allowed the audience to buy into the impromptu (and often downright weird) nature of the show, which made it all the more comical. Although every single performer had the audience in stitches at various points, two performances worthy of individual commendation were those of Morgan-Williams and Forster. Morgan-Williams for her truly spectacular rhyming song lyrics (in particular her ‘consonant/vowel’ song) and Forster for completely stealing the limelight whenever she was on stage with her hilarious characterisation of an elderly, outspoken Geordie woman.

What with the plot being totally spontaneous, everything else had to be, too. And therefore the Lighting Operator, Alice Malone, must be praised for keeping up with the actors and for complementing the performance with aptly timed spotlights and colour changes. Bromwich, too, must of course be congratulated, not only for displaying tremendous musical skill in accompanying the performers in whichever wacky numbers they came up with, but also for his great comic timing. On several occasions, his first few notes on the piano, indicating a song was about to commence, took the actors by surprise, and led to some amusing moments—most notably when Keable was forced to ad-lib a whole song about Pret-a-Manger.

Undoubtedly, everyone involved in this production should be proud of themselves. They set out to entertain us, and entertain us they most certainly did. The only criticism I could possibly make would be that Keable had a slight tendency to force the plot along single-handedly. Understandably, in this kind of improvised performance, there is pressure to move the story along in order to reach a clear conclusion, but I felt that this could have been achieved more collaboratively. With such a talented and creative ensemble to hand, it hardly seemed necessary for one performer to introduce the majority of the plot points, and I would like to have seen how the performance played out had some of the other actors had more opportunity for creative input. However, this is a small criticism of an otherwise expertly executed evening of laugh-out-loud improvised musical comedy, and were this not a one-off performance by its very definition, I would recommend it highly.

5 December 2016

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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