An Improbable Musical review – improv masters hit a glorious sweet spot

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Josie Lawrence, Niall Ashdown and Ruth Bratt’s joyful creation in action is a delight to watch

A favourite place, a word that makes your mouth happy, and a sentence. That’s all Improbable require of their audience, and with it, their improvised musical can begin. Tonight’s finds the team dramatising – in song, sketch and object animation – Charles Wicksteed’s bequest of a park to the town of Kettering. Was Wicksteed a philanthropist, or a capitalist laundering his guilty conscience? Will two lakeside lovers ever pop one another the question? And what do eucalyptuses have to do with it?

Such is the stuff of tonight’s musical adventure, which just about weaves these extemporised strands into a coherent 80-minute whole. OK, so the time period is vague, the romantic subplot is barely tethered to the main narrative, and one or two story offers die of neglect. But the point of improv isn’t perfection. It’s teamwork, Zen-like acceptance of success and failure alike, and it’s the joy of inspired creation in action. At all of which, Improbable are past masters whose show (directed by Lee Simpson, with a band led by Christopher Ash) is a delight to watch.

An imbalance in the team dynamic is suggested early at the performance I see, mind you, as the crowd redoubles its applause when Josie Lawrence takes centre-stage. And tonight, the senior improvisers (Lawrence, Niall Ashdown, Ruth Bratt) dominate proceedings. In her top-hatted Wicksteed persona, Bratt teams up with Lawrence on a terrific number playing on the multiple meanings of “giving it all away”, then with Ashdown on a blissful ballad of emotional inarticulacy that wouldn’t shame a Sondheim.

At such moments, when what you’re watching is both heart-burstingly real and obviously a game at the same time, the company hit their glorious sweet spot. I enjoyed, too, how cheerfully they acknowledge misunderstandings, as when they find themselves busily assembling a water slide in mutually exclusive ways. The solution is one of several instances of adroit DIY staging, as various tarps and fabrics are configured to suggest lakes, bedclothes, shrouds and an errant dog. It comes from almost nothing and leaves scarcely more in its wake – but, while it lasts, An Improbable Musical is a lovely, open-hearted exercise in spontaneous creation.

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