Showstopper! at the Cambridge Theatre review: improv stars still conjuring musicals up before our very eyes

 (Geraint Lewis)
(Geraint Lewis)

It has been a tough few months for the world of improvisation. In March, Keith Johnstone, the undisputed heavyweight influence on the craft of theatrical spontaneity, passed away. And last week Andy Smart, a livewire stalwart of The Comedy Store Players died suddenly.

Thankfully Showstopper! is still going strong and has now transferred to the Cambridge Theatre. I first saw this Olivier Award-winning show over a decade ago in a north London pub. Possibly Camden, possibly Islington, possibly with master of ceremonies Dylan Emery wearing the same black suit. The only change from those ad libbed beginnings is that plot twists can now be suggested during the interval via Twitter.

Well, that’s not the only change, because everything changes, every night. Emery takes a phone call from a producer called ‘Cameron’ and tasked with coming up with a musical on the spot, he appeals to the audience for ideas about location, style and title. And off we go.

Last night the troupe, plucked from a pool of performers, staged Scarlet Fever, a romcom on the Central Line influenced by Cole Porter, Tim Minchin, Oklahoma and Avenue Q.  A nine-year-old’s request for a Taylor Swift cover was rejected, presumably more due to copyright than artistic reasons. This is very much an all-inclusive family-friendly show.

The performances are consistently powerful. Adam Meggido played lovestruck divorcee Richard, Lauren Shearing his sweetheart Eloise. Ruth Bratt played a few characters including Richard’s ex, film star Rosie O’Donnell (a particularly random audience brainwave).

 (Geraint Lewis)
(Geraint Lewis)

Pippa Evans played, among others, a lubricious publisher channelling Barry Humphries’ Les Patterson. Andrew Pugsley and Justin Brett contributed numerous amusing supporting creations, among them a phlegmy Al Pacino and a he’s-in-the-room Michael Caine respectively.

The seemingly effortless synergy between the performers is what makes this so appealing. There is barely a hiccup as they conjure up new lyrics before your very eyes backed by a trio of versatile musicians, Duncan Walsh Atkins, Chris Ash and Alex Atty. The songs might not always work as recognisable pastiches, but they always work as entertainment.

In the second half, this torrid tale of rush hour underground passion did go a little off the rails, but this was only because the first half was so impressive and a lot of loose threads had to be tied together quickly to arrive at the required destination on schedule.

After various subplots including a frantically funny Tinder date montage for Eloise, the star-crossed lovers were united at the Chelsea Flower Show. Let’s overlook the fact that Chelsea is nowhere near the Central Line. Instead let’s sing the praises of an ensemble that never loses its way.

Cambridge Theatre, also June 5 & 26, July 17, October 16 & 30, November 13 & 27 and December 18; buy tickets here