Ipswich: Paul Merton’s Impro Chums on sideburns, hard-drinking porcine sailors and why they’ll never stop touring

Paul Merton and his Impro Chums: Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster

Paul Merton and his Impro Chums: Mike McShane, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster - Credit: Archant

It’s like being treated to a command performance of Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, the terrific improvised show that came to the Ipswich Regent this week.

Comedian Paul Merton comes to Ipswich tonight

Comedian Paul Merton comes to Ipswich tonight - Credit: Archant

The quintet of inspired improvisers - Paul Merton, Richard Vranch, Lee Simpson, Suki Webster and Mike McShane - and I are sitting round a cosy open fire in the sitting room at a central London hotel discussing the Chums’ current national tour.

The room echoes to the sound of repeated, loud bursts of laughter.

The Chums have a similar affect on audiences up and down the country. They have been wowing theatres across the UK for years now with their spontaneity; able to conjure out of thin air the most breathtaking routines.

The joy of the show – for both performers and audience – lies in the fact it is totally unplanned. Paul starts by singing the praises of a format that requires no preparation whatsoever.

“I haven’t written a joke for 25 years,” laughs the comedian, who for the past quarter of a century has also been a pivotal member of that other hugely popular impro group, The Comedy Store Players.

“In Edinburgh one year, we were in a bar 20 minutes before the show was due to begin. We wanted to write down what impro games we would be doing in the show, but we realised we didn’t have a pen or paper. So we had to borrow the waiter’s pen and notepad, That’s the great thing about doing this show – there is no stress involved whatsoever.

Most Read

“We don’t have any scripts or props. On one occasion, I remember the comedian Owen O’Neill was astounded that with absolutely no preparation we were about to do a show in front of 1,000 people in Glasgow that would have them cheering from the rafters.

“Now other comedians like Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke have started doing impro with us. ‘Hang on,’ they say, ‘you don’t have to write any jokes and you do it with your mates? Where do we sign’?”

From the other side of the fireplace, Suki chips in that “the only skill you have to learn for impro is don’t plan and don’t worry. The key is simply listening and reacting to what the other person has just said.”

Paul agrees.

“Planning doesn’t work because it throws the other performers, who don’t know what you’ve planned. It sounds very difficult and crazy to go on stage with nothing planned, but that is actually the show’s strength. We have all worked together for a long time and know we can rely on each other.”

The Chums’ close friendship and mutual understanding, built up over the last 25 years, is almost telepathic and endows the troupe with a wonderful on-stage chemistry.

“We have a common language,” reflects Mike, an American who became a star in this country thanks to his mesmerising performances on C4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?

“We know how to play to each other’s strengths. Also, if it goes belly up, someone will cover you. The show plays very fast and loose, and you know it’ll get a little crazy out there. But deep in your heart you’re always aware that it’ll never fall apart – someone will stick their neck out and help you out.”

He adds: “It’s a familiarity which helps the show rather than hinders it – it’s never leaden. It’s not a couple of actors getting together and saying ‘oh darling, do you remember when’. We all support each other. It’s about constantly reviving the dying patient on stage.”

The Chums certainly have a tremendous capacity for keeping the show fresh.

Paul says: “As a performer, you can never be bored because you’ve never heard it before and you’re doing something that five seconds ago you didn’t know you were going to do. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you are bored of impro, you’re bored of life.”

Audiences get a rare thrill from the show, too. They revel in the fact they can make suggestions the Chums immediately act out. They also relish the fact the performers are clearly having the time of their lives up on stage. And they are delighted the show is being created uniquely for them – they know it will never be repeated.

Lee, who also has a flourishing career as an actor and is sporting a fine pair of sideburns for a forthcoming role, reckons: “Audiences lap it up because they can see we’re really enjoying ourselves. The enjoyment keeps it going.

“We love to muck about on stage. We take risks for fun, drop each other in it and mercilessly ridicule each other. The others may, for instance, have great fun at the expense of one’s sideburns.”

According to Richard, who also made a big splash on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, people love the sheer fun and the teamwork.

“They can see that the team is more important than the individual. Audiences also adore the fact it’s different every time. They are really pleased to be hearing this material for the first time. They know that a great scene involving, say, a nuclear bomb up the Eiffel Tower isn’t going to happen again.

“That’s why it stays so fresh. We would have got tired a long time ago if we were doing The Mousetrap every night. The audience is also part of the show – they literally get what they ask for. By the end they feel like they’ve done it with us.”

Lee, who was a producer on ITV1’s impro show, Thank God You’re Here, in 2008, chimes in that audiences remain gripped by Paul Merton’s Impro Chums because it’s a show about people putting on a show. They find that fascinating.

The audiences are so supportive because they are well aware of how hard impro is.

“They know it’s all made up, so they give us more licence,” Mike muses. “And if someone does something great, they really appreciate it. They’re on your side because they know how risky it is.”

Audiences also tend to remember the best routines – even if the Chums don’t.

“Someone will describe to you a scene that you did in a previous show and you simply don’t remember it,” continues Richard, who provides musical accompaniment to some of the Chums’ most memorable routines. “People come up and say ‘you were so funny as a penguin that time’ and you have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Suki adds: “I was in the ladies the other day and a random woman came up to me and sang me a song in its entirety that I had improvised a year earlier and had completely forgotten about. You don’t remember a two-minute routine you did in Preston a year previously because your brain doesn’t need to store it or analyse. As soon as you’ve said it, it’s gone.”

The troupe have established a very loyal following.

“You never see tired impro and that’s what audiences love,” reckons Paul, who for the past two decades has enjoyed huge success as a team captain on BBC1’s enduringly popular topical quiz, Have I Got News For You.

“At the Comedy Store Players we’ve had the same people in the front row for years. We’ve even had marriages between fans. It’s great for them because they know it’ll always be different.”

The group play lots of great games on stage. One of their favourites is the fish bowl where they read out audience suggestions plucked from a fish bowl and instantly have to perform them. It leads to the most inventive scenes.

“I remember someone once suggested ‘pig semen’,” Mike smiles. “So we did a musical about hard-drinking porcine sailors.”

The Chums see no reason why the fun should ever end. Richard says: “Last night we were performing to an audience that stretched from an 18-year-old to someone celebrating his 80th birthday. They were all rocking with laughter at the same jokes. You do not get that with stand-up or TV comedy. I think we’ll have longevity because our humour is not niche, it’s universal.”

Suki concurs the show will go on.

“It’s just enormous fun,” enthuses the performer, who co-wrote the documentaries, Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock and Morecambe and Wise: The Show What Paul Merton Did.

“We get paid to go on tour in a lovely big bus with all our mates. What could be better than that?”

Paul concludes: “It’s such a joy performing with the Chums. Our motto is if it’s funny, it’s justified. That spirit of ‘anything can happen’ will continue. With good health, we can carry on for years. With this show, there is no inbuilt obsolescence – apart from our own inbuilt obsolescence.”

Click the above link for more from Paul Merton.