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The Showstoppers

Susannah Gill

Rshowstoppers.jpgThe Southbank, London, until July 14

Edinburgh Fringe, 2-13 August

Imagine yourself in the wings of a theatre. The house is sold out and a hush has settled over the audience. In a moment the lights will come up and all eyes will be on you as you sweep onstage to deliver your opening lines … only you have no idea what they are.

For any sane person, this is the routine stuff of nightmare. For the Showstoppers, it's all in an evening's work. The Showstoppers - a rotating cast of 15 seasoned actors and a handful of agile musicians and tech crew - promise an improvised musical and, night after night, pitting themselves against human fallibility and the possibility of total and public disaster, they deliver. Armed with nothing but their wits, a few props and a smoke machine, they spin a full-length show from thin air and audience suggestions, making up plot, characters, dialogue and songs as they go along. The result is an evening of soul-exfoliating delight, even for theatregoers whose personal hell, like mine, includes a chamber where show tunes play on an endless loop.

The premise seems impossible. Surely ten people, working off the cuff with no script, no director and no time to prepare, cannot make up a coherent musical set in a Greggs pie shop, or on a space station, with songs in the style of half a dozen different well-known Broadway shows. But an hour later, after an attack by a mutant jellyfish-daisy done totally in mime, a bhangra song-and-dance number riffing on 'Ganesh' and 'ganache' or a romantic duet entitled 'I Fumbled My Pressuriser', you find yourself cheering the closing number and realise they've actually pulled it off, and you never even saw the joins.

How do they do it? The basic principles of improv are simple enough: surrender your need to control things and plan ahead; trust your own spontaneity to supply you with what's required; accept and build on any idea your comrades contribute. But the Showstoppers are virtuosos who take these skills to an almost supernatural level. They possess bottomless self-confidence, rising instantly and insouciantly to any challenge set them, whether it's a poetry face-off in the style of Keats, an ensemble dance number from scratch or a Sondheim-style trio about nepotism in the galactic navy. They seem fused together into one seamless hive mind; communication between them is so smooth and imperceptible as to verge on telepathy. For audience members with no exposure to how improvisation works, it just looks like magic. Or like it's not made up at all; rumour has it that at one point the Showstoppers were working so well together that audiences simply stopped believing they were improvising, and they had to reintroduce errors in order to win them back. Error seems to be key to the Showstoppers' charm: error, imperfection, uncertainty and the possibility of failure.

Many people equate improvisational theatre with comedy, which is only sort of true. A Showstoppers performance involves an immoderate amount of laughter, but it's not the result of relentless wittiness. Rather, it seems to be the natural byproduct of a lightness of being - a delight in watching humans cooperate, embrace the unpredictable, make themselves vulnerable by risking things going mortifyingly wrong. They play. And play is an intensely refreshing change from mainstream theatre, where no matter how much you're laughing, it's often impossible to forget how terribly hard everyone's working to make things perfect.

I'm an amateur improviser, and an improv evangelist. I think everyone should have a go. The skills involved - being present in the moment, paying attention to others, collaborating instead of competing, letting go of the need for control, accepting the situation you're in, leaping in when a hero is required, embracing the prospect of failure - are all also essential skills for being good at being human. I even have pet scriptural endorsements of the improv spirit: Mark 13:11, Matthew 6:34, 2 Peter 1:21.

Ultimately, the delight of watching the Showstoppers, or any good improv, is the delight of seeing a kind of faith in action. The gospels tell us again and again not to worry about the future, not to cling to safety and control, to trust that what is necessary will be provided. Standing in front of an audience and bursting into song without even knowing what the song will be? If that isn't a leap of faith, I don't know what is.