The Improvised Pantomime

Fri 9th – Sat 10th December 2011


Julie Fisher

at 23:13 on 9th Dec 2011



I found the prospect of reviewing a show which changes with every performance rather a daunting one, so I can only imagine what performing in one must have felt like. But ShellShock!, Durham’s Improvised Comedy Society, showed no signs of nerves as they entertained us for an hour and half without a script this evening.

The audience for The Improvised Pantomime was a regrettably small one, which could have been a problem given that the course of the play was determined by their suggestions, but luckily they made up for lack of numbers with enthusiasm, providing some tricky scenarios for the cast to work with. And in their turn, the cast took our ideas and wove them into a plot which was interesting, humorous, and even coherent most of the time, despite its fairly loose grasp on reality.

So how different is an improvised pantomime from a normal one, I hear you cry. The answer is very. For one, the elaborate costumes, backdrops and props normally found at a pantomime are nowhere to be found. How could they be, without prior knowledge of what will be needed? Instead, the actors dressed all in black, and relied on “invisible props” to get them through the evening. Those props which did appear were used to great effect, most notable of them being “Lionel the lie-detecting ferret” (played by what appeared to be half a scarf), who defied all attempts by his owner (Eddy Larkin) to keep him on his shoulder.

Sketches showcasing different improvisation techniques, such as the Quick Change (in which the actor changes their last line whenever someone shouts “CHANGE!”) and Half Life (replaying the same scene over and over in progressively shorter time periods), were inserted into the performance, along with the obvious improvisation necessary given that the audience had determined many elements of the storyline. In many respects this was almost an anti-pantomime, both because it focused on the story of a generally overlooked character (we chose the lamp from Aladdin) and because the audience often reacted differently from how a normal pantomime audience might. When the actors appealed to us to clap our hands if we believed in dragons, someone in the row in front of me defiantly shouted “No!” and thus the dragon was no more.

In general, the acting was good, with stand-out performances from Charlie Gardiner as the Lamp, Antonia Shacklock as an evil minion, one half of a dragon and a rollercoaster driver, and Dan Pitts and Greg Smith as every character imaginable. Smith showed a particular talent for speaking made-up languages, whistling as a Clanger for several scenes and later making bizarre noises (complete with “subtitles”) that were supposed to be deer-speak. Of course, there were some awkward moments and slips in the dialogue, but these were generally covered well, and none of the actors were afraid to laugh at themselves after making a mistake. Indeed, some of these blunders, such as the “L-shaped submarine”, were as funny as the intentional jokes.

Josie Adam, the technical director, also seems to deserve a mention, if only because she is described as awesome twice in the programme. Quite who wrote said programme I’m not sure, but they certainly seemed to have a sense of humour, which is unsurprising really given that ShellShock are an Improvised Comedy society.

If you go down to the Assembly Rooms for the next performance of The Improvised Pantomime, I can’t guarantee that you’ll see a show that even vaguely resembles the one I saw tonight (in fact, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t). But as long as you have some suitably wacky suggestions up your sleeve, the cast will make sure that it’s a performance to remember.


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