If I took anything away from last term’s improvised comedy offering, Mock Trial: An Improvised Court Case, it was an overwhelming desire to see somebody take this longer-form improvised storytelling to the next logical step: a single sketch spanning an entire performance, a fully-developed improvised narrative. A term on, fledgling improv troupe The House of Improv promised to provide just that. Their debut show, Death By Murder is a charming departure from what improv fans are used to delivered by an endearingly ambitious bunch of clowns.
The biggest challenge facing long-form improv is consistency, retaining spontaneously created information across the whole performance. Death By Murder immediately eliminates this problem that Mock Trial struggled with by using name tags to distinguish each character. Not merely a convenient cue for the actors, the tags give each audience member the chance to come up with a character name, which the actors would then pick out of a hat and have to embody from that time forth. This random method is fair, sure, but it inevitably leads to most suggestions never being realised as they remain, tauntingly, sitting in a hat at the front of the stage.
In fact, audience participation in general is poorly integrated into the performance. The key creative decisions the audience could influence, namely the setting and the murderer, were decided by clap-o-meter, impossible to quantify, open to bias: who’s to say the actors cannot just pick the most confident performer to give a monologue when the cheers sound about the same volume? Surely, a show of hands would have been more democratic. Still, after that debacle, we had the components of our story: a bonkers murder mystery romance on a submarine liner.
Fortunately, it is no exaggeration to say that the actors “embody” their characters. Everyone quickly established a unique identity, creating a distinctive party with an impressive range of character types, accents, and mannerisms, from J. $wag’s (Rick Stevenson) Irish-Canadian accent to Dr. Steve Twinkletoe’s (Jack Lawrence) tepid body language and submissiveness to his wife. All of this was accompanied by keyboardist Christopher Magazzeni’s surprisingly varied score. Some brief lapses of established character – Alfreda (Eliza McHugh) started swearing a lot more in the second half than her demeanour had previously suggested – rarely detracted from the consistency of acting.
Such attention to detail extended to recurring jokes, the standout gag being J. Swag’s misguided decision to create a submarine by sticking one cruise ship on top of another, leaving half the rooms upside down, a detail the crew are ashamed of. The actors all contributed to these motifs, exploiting them to the full. The dreaded upside-down rooms prompted Alfreda’s (Eliza McHugh) lament that “I don’t have sticky feet like they do in the movies”. Characters’ constant attempts to define themselves as either a scientist or an artist led to Dimitri’s (Emma Hinnells) ingeniously edgy line “I’m not a person. I’m a concept”, which was then refigured as “What is a concept to do?”. In that sense, House of Improv achieves a level of character development impossible to pull off in a sketch show, with no concept half-baked nor overdone.
Yet, behind this energetic bombast was an intimacy unrivalled by other improv troupes. The resounding impression I got was of a group of people who just love being in front of an audience together, perceptible in the way each actor went to select a name tag, read it aloud, and was greeted by laughs from their co-actors. This unintentionally led to one of the show’s best gags, in which Hinnells spent five minutes trying to peel off her name tag, only to find that the audience member had written the name on the wrong side. The fact that this happened twice was sublime. While the laughing did come across as amateurish at times, such as when the audience was deathly silent and the actors were just starting to establish a scene, or whenever somebody fell back on a quintessentially ‘studenty’ joke about employment prospects, the actors’ connection to each other and the audience was, on the whole, charming.
Saying that, there is still a lot that can be done to improve this formula. The predictable structure of cycling through each character combination did lead to some interesting parallels between the pairs but, more often than not, led to scenes feeling inorganic, especially when they remembered that conflict had to come from somewhere to build up to the murder. The whole structure of telling the story up to the murder and ending with the murderer’s confession seems a bit misleading in contrast the “mystery” that was advertised. Why not carry on after the murder, detailing each character’s response to the tragedy, with a detective, perhaps even played by an audience member, who has to interview each character? As it stands, the ‘Death’ in Death By Murder is merely a device to provide the show with a definitive end. What is it with recent improv shows and their fixation on murder, anyway?
To write off this promising improv troupe, however, would be an absolute crime – a murder, perhaps? I deplore my liberal use of the past tense in this review, but the nature of improvised comedy means that every night this show runs will be unique: all the more reason to go and witness it for yourself. With their undeniable ambition and charm, House of Improv have loosened the Imps’ monopoly on the improvised stage in Oxford. This strong debut is a promise of greatness to come.