How do you rehearse for a show that is wholly improvised, with each scene based on a suggestion of one random word from an audience member? Imp Jamie Cooke makes an analogy with football training- ‘you practice passing, shooting, free kicks – you can’t know what will come up in the match but if you have the skills you can deal with anything.’ Sylvia Bishop adds that it’s essential to be used to working with each other, for when cast out on stage and ordered to perform a scene based on the word ‘flipper’ with one other person, you need to know how that person ticks to ensure the scene, while inherently mad, does not descend into chaos. The juxtaposition of hilarious one-liners and strange animal noises in the warm-up to the rehearsal I saw reflected the atmosphere of utterly disciplined madness.
They first do some scenes with emphasis on the fronter- the Imp who asks the audience for a suggestion and chooses when to end the scene, which, assistant director Ali Hall advises, should be done at the earliest legitimate point. Some scenes may last only a minute if a particularly high peak is reached early on, though,as Jamie says, ‘the best scenes happen when we build them up together’. Sylvia explains that audience reactions are very important here, as if they’re not laughing there’s greater temptation to throw out one-liners rather than expand the scene. As Ali says, ‘it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination- but coherence is needed to go with the funny stuff.’
There’s always a moment of tension at the start of a scene when two (or more) Imps are on stage with a wacky suggestion, and neither we nor they know which direction the scene will take, a moment Jamie describes as ‘quite exciting’. The suggestion ‘padlocks’ inspires a scene involving a supply teacher locking a student in a box. ‘Train station’ begins with the enigmatic utterance ‘I read it’, forcing the other Imp to react spontaneously to this unexpected start, producing a situation in which a lover had written a poem comparing his love to a train station, where the humour derived as much from the obscure and unpredictable scene as from the witty dialogue. In the show on Monday, the fronter’s request for something that comes in threes was met, alongside suggestions of ‘blind mice’ and ‘buses’,with a shout of ‘North African revolutions’, which two Imps took completely in their stride to create one of the best scenes of the night. The ability to make just anything into a brilliant scene is very impressive.
A game focused on in rehearsal is based on the Oscars: the audience come up with a title of a film and four Oscars (one imaginary) that it has won, and we see a chat show with the director discussing the clips of the film that won it these Oscars. This allows the director and presenter to ‘pimp’ the Imps who perform the clip, setting up the scene to come. Ali urges them not to give their friends too much of an impossible task, but goes on to say that the director’s statement ‘the combination of Jamaican patois and iambic pentameter here was probably what won us Best Song’ was a ‘perfect balance’- an impossible task for any ordinary human is all in a day’s work for an Imp. While in rehearsal this game proved hard to get right, Monday’s viewing of Bacchus goes to Rehab brought the house down and the Imps clearly thrived on the audience’s howls of laughter.
The Imps have got something of a cult following in Oxford, as demonstrated by the queues extending from the Wheatsheaf to the High Street half an hour before Monday’s curtain-up. But next week they have a special project planned: a 12 hour Imping marathon encompassing shows in 10 colleges throughout the day, with all proceeds going towards the work of the Homeless Action Group. If this rehearsal and show is anything to go by, they’ll win over every audience in style. Go to one, go to all, it’ll be totally different and utterly hilarious every time.