The Olivier Award-winning improv group has returned to the London stage for a Monday night residency at the Garrick Theatre.

The fact that The Showstoppers put together a brand new musical every time they take the stage is frankly a remarkable achievement in itself. Led by chair Dylan Emery, tonight’s five performers – Andrew Pugsley, Adam Meggido, Pippa Evans, Ali James and Justin Brett – took ideas from the audience about the plot, setting and musical styles, then proceeded to invent the dialogue and songs on the spot. Entertaining – but ultimately rejected – suggestions included “just make things really gay” (we swear this one wasn’t ours) and a story involving a provincial gentleman’s club that had been forced to admit women for the first time.

We’ve seen them before and can testify that each performance is unique. Previously we were treated to A Lotta Dancing; set on an allotment in Cornwall, and including a blossoming romance in a Cornish pasty factory, it was inspired by the music of Rent, Wicked and 42nd Street. This time around we watched A Change of Direction; it followed the tale of five out-of-work actors who had retrained in various jobs including a taxi driver, a nail salon technician and a McDonald’s drive-thru cashier, with music inspired by Hamilton, The Lion King and The Rocky Horror Show. There were also nods to Six, Phantom of the Opera and Sondheim thrown in for good measure.

We appreciated that the troupe had created some novel solutions to the current situation. At present, audience participation is discouraged as shouting can increase the risk of transmission; instead of making suggestions verbally, the audience was invited to text and tweet ideas to the chair, who would periodically sprinkle something new into the mix as the show progressed. We were instructed to vote for our favourite suggestions by clapping or stamping feet, instead of the usual cheering and whooping. No-one was invited onto the stage, and no actors came out into the audience, but we joined in with some gentle choreography from the comfort of our socially-distanced seats.

There were some really excellent songs thrown into the mix. A particular highlight saw our ensemble of out-of-work actors tell a tale of an advert they’d seen in The Stage, and whether to respond to it – it had a great chorus which to be honest would have been a strong song in any musical. Other impressive moments included a Phantom-inspired number in the ruined, abandoned theatre, and the Hamilton pastiche also landed well. There was a bit of a dip in the energy mid-show and some of the music suffered as a result, but they built themselves back up to a rousing grand finale.

We had a really fun night with the Showstoppers. It’s quite amazing that a show thrown together on the back of ideas presented to these actors on the night can include better songs and funnier punchlines than many bigger productions feature after several months of development. Of course we can’t guarantee that future audiences will see a show as good as this one, but we’re sure they’ll be in for a treat nonetheless. At a time when we could all do with a bit of cheering up, we’re so pleased they’ve returned to delight West End audiences once again.

GAY TIMES gives Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – 4/5

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