Review by Liz Baldwin
An expectant audience murmuring. A stage empty but for two red chairs. A band poised to play, cast warming up. But wait! There’s no script, no characters, not even a title.
Is it a performer’s fever dream? No: it’s The Impromptunes, playing the first Friday of every month at St Kilda’s Alex Theatre.
Improvised musical theatre always strikes me as one of the most cognitively demanding feats known to humans. You have all the regular challenges of improvisation – developing a concept off a single prompt, staying in sync with your castmates, building to some kind of climax and denouement. Tricky enough in itself. Add to that the exacting demands of a musical – composing lyrics on the fly, harmonising, dancing – and it should be a recipe for chaos.
But The Impromptunes made it look easy. Taking a single title suggestion – Psychotic Bananas – from a small but enthusiastic audience they built a coherent, funny and engaging 80-minute musical. We opened in the Melbourne Fruit Laboratory, where a group of vaguely defined scientists declared their passionate commitment to engineering giant fruit (notably, a three-tonne pineapple) to save the world from hunger. From there, the plot only became more and more, well, bananas.
Despite a few hiccups – ‘Lights!’ The lights go up. ‘... The other way!’ and we fade to black – the show mostly felt remarkably polished and well-structured. The cast – Amelia June, Izaak Lim, Josh Burton and Zoe Harlen, led by narrator and company director Emmet Nichols – did an impressive job of plotting the show. Each developed an identifiable character with a distinct arc, creating space for A- and B-plots that kept the show progressing at pace, and were very satisfyingly brought together in the final scenes.
The songs were a standout, and delivered may of the biggest laughs of the night. Ably supported by the live band, the cast delivered some brilliant original numbers: ‘Only a Fool is Ethical’ was a brilliant tribute to workplace scoundrels everywhere, while ‘Papa Banana’ featured cracking physical performances from four, mostly kneeling, bananas. The cast’s deep appreciation and knowledge of the musical theatre genre was evident, as was their outstanding ability to compose and rhyme mid-song. Most lyrics were delivered in rhyming couplets, an exacting requirement that forced creativity to flourish (my personal favourite was ‘love a / giant guava’).
The cast was consistently strong, and worked together well – scenes evolved seamlessly, drawing on the team’s obvious ease with one another. Izaak Lim’s vocals and acting were a particular highlight, bringing some heart to an otherwise unstintingly absurd show.
Emmett Nichols’ skill as both director and performer was also evident. His fast patter song - courageously accepting a castmate’s invitation to list each of the eighty-something-thousand things he allegedly knew - was a treat. The pace was jaunty, the patter was catchy, and the list of facts - from the alphabet to George Lucas to Excel function RANDBETWEEN - was indeed lengthy.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a Friday night than in the company of The Impromptunes. With a brand-new show every month, I know I’ll be back again, and again, and again.