If, for even a brief moment in the early 1990s, comedy was indeed the new rock'n'roll, the comparison was at its strongest in the field of improvisation. Some outfits, such as the Chicago Improv Syndicate on last summer's visit, resembled progressive-rock dinosaurs in their lengthy, tediously complex and fraudulently pre-arranged pieces, which contained the merest nod to spontaneity; others – notably the form's highest-profile manifestation, the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? – were more like speed-punk, being fast, loud and seldom lasting more than a few seconds.
To push the metaphor to a frankly dubious extreme, the One Word Improv company at the Albery exhibit the strengths of the current British pop/rock scene. Suki Webster is the Mel Spice of the posse: alluring, sometimes a little tentative but with a prodigious talent for "rapping" in pantomime doggerel; Neil Mullarkey maintains an absurd poise throughout à la Jarvis Cocker; Steve Frost is an ageing Shaun Ryder, cavorting with wild abandon and specialising in depth-charges of vulgarity; and Eddie Izzard contributes the cutting-edge weirdness of the likes of Tricky.
Izzard, a man who has more or less registered the phrase "surreal rambling" as a trademark, might have proved to be the joker even in such a pack; in fact, his propensity for straying from the proper path proves bountiful. Few others would have made the connection between a chainsaw and Arthurian legend, digressed from a schoolroom scene into a contest with Mullarkey to see which of them could do the better impersonation of Deryck Guyler in Please, Sir! or explained his wandering dialect with a visit to the Accent Exchange Board.
The team as a whole are confident and experienced at dealing with the audience suggestions which fuel the show: they dispose of childishly naughty or wilfully ridiculous items in a few seconds flat in order to allow themselves ten minutes or longer in scenes generated by more fertile material. Since part of the fun of watching improv is the prospect of seeing a performer stumped, the foursome also take delight in leaving one another up the creek, though never quite without a paddle. (Frost, for instance, shows a steely determination to annoy Izzard by smudging his lipstick.) At other moments they seem disarmingly like a bunch of young children mapping out the rules for the "pretends" they are about to play.
The enjoyment of improv comedy rests on generosity: performers are prepared to find themselves being momentarily crappy and audiences willing to watch them being so, but to bear with them on the understanding that things move so quickly that their mistakes will seldom if ever catch them up. The One Word quartet have no trouble in establishing such a compact as a foundation for two hours of don't-stop-to-think laughter. Moreover, despite the techno tapes and lighting which open each half, they plainly have the souls of rockers: the opening night was rounded off with the wanton destruction of their only props, four wooden stools, in finest Pete Townshend style.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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