New Wolsey Theatre bound Ruth Bratt, of Olivier Award nominated Showstopper! The Musical, interviewed

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Photo: Steve Ullathorne - Credit: Archant

It’s an exciting, but nervous, time for the team behind Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. They are just a few days away from finding out if their residency at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Apollo Theatre will win them the Olivier Award for best entertainment and family show.

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical stops by Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre and Clacton's West Cliff T

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical stops by Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre and Clacton's West Cliff Theatre this week. Photo: Steve Ullathorne - Credit: Archant

“My nan used to say to me ‘when are you going to do some legitimate theatre?’ I wish she was still here so I could say ‘look, it is legitimate’,” laughs cast-member Ruth Bratt, who has been with the show since its start eight years ago.

“It’s bonkers, really delightful, humbling, exciting; all those things. We were hopeful... It’s great for impro as an art form. I don’t want to sound too highfalutin but impro is often seen as the poor cousin of theatre. It’s not... It demands as much practice as any form of art. Because of the amount of work that’s gone into this, that still goes into this; we’re really proud.

“(We find out) April 3 I believe. A couple of us get to get dolled up and sit in a theatre listening to an awards ceremony, it’ll be great.”

The rotating cast of actors and musicians are regarded as the UK’s most acclaimed and in-demand musical improvisers and a must-see staple of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The brainchild of Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery, they have four West End seasons and an acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series to their name and have travelled the world, picking up awards and accolades including The Times’ best of the Fringe, Mervyn Stutter’s Spirit Of The Fringe Award and nominations for Chortle Best Music Or Variety Act, MTM Best Production Award and MTM Judges’ Discretionary Award.

The idea is the showstoppers take your suggestions and then spin a new comedy musical out of thin air - stories, characters, tunes, lyrics, dances, harmonies and all. If you’ve thought improvisation looked difficult before, try doing it in time and tune to music.

“There’s only as much audience interaction as you want there to be, I think that’s really important for people to know. We don’t demand everyone get up and shout, dance... We ask the audience what they want the show to be about, the musical style, a title of the show and then we get going,” laughs Ruth, who comes from a comedy and impro background.

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Watching it from the audience’s perspective, even she admits to sometimes wondering how the cast are doing it.

“You know because you do it but you get caught up in it because it’s very fast, very funny, always entertaining. You have people making stuff up on the spot, walking that tightrope of failure at all times which is a beautiful tightrope to watch.”

That’s not to say they don’t prepare. Ruth - an improv Fringe regular for the last 11 years whose TV credits include Ricky Gervais’ Derek, Sarah Millican’s Support Group and Vic Reeves’ The Ministry Of Curious Stuff - likens it to the way a football or rugby team would train.

The key is keeping their impro muscles in top shape via workshops, knowing how to deconstruct the work of composers like Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webbed and knowing they can rely on each other no matter what surprises an audience might throw at them.

“The really exciting thing is when a topic or setting we’ve never done before comes up. I think we’ve done four or five pirate musicals now and at least two or three of them have been called arrrgh,” she laughs.

“Some of the suggestions can be massive curve balls and can be more tricky but generally I think the more onside everyone is the more fun you have. The audience are part of the creative process as much as we are - we can’t do it without them. So when they’re really on board that’s when its really exhilarating. Not to sound too precious about it but it does feel like creativity and communal creation.”

“We’ve done more than 700 musicals so of course we’re going to get repeated ideas. The biggest challenge is not to be paralysed by our own thoughts of ‘I’m sure I’ve done this before’. Often when we were doing the West End run you’d forget what you’d done in the matinee because your brain can’t retain all that stuff.”

Ruth remembers a recent show in Cambridge when the cast were flying, having a whale of a time with the audience. Some are trickier than others though.

“We’ve had (candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States Donald) Trump a few times now. I’m not sure anyone actually wants to watch a musical about Donald Trump but it’s quite funny to say it. That (also) has to be at some level satirical and satirical improv’s quite tricky, she laughs. “We’ve never had it go horribly, horribly wrong, touch wood, really quickly. There’s never been one where we’ve just gone ‘oh well that’s got to end then’.”

Making stuff up on the spot, there’s the occasionally brain freeze but you’ve five other people on stage to help you out. The audience like to see them struggling, Ruth adds, because it proves they’re improvising.

“There are definitely been people who have said ‘oh it’s not improvised’ because it can appear quite slick and it’s so fast. It’s just sometimes you just don’t see the wobble. When you do that’s exciting. The other thing is there are so many shows going on - the one each individual actor is having, the show as a whole, then there’s the show the audience sees.”

Continuing the sporting analogy, the cast record their shows to watch and dissect later.

“It’s never as bad as we think and it’s very rarely as brilliant as we think,” she laughs, slipping into self-critical actor mode. “There are a few that we think ‘yeah, that was absolutely brilliant.”

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre tonight and tomorrow. It stops by Clacton’s West Cliff Theatre on Saturday.