Review by Harry Bower
How do you review a show which is completely improvised on the spot, and will never again be delivered to an audience in the same way? With great difficulty, it may not surprise you to learn. What’s not difficult though is that because it was a one-off, I can tell you about the plot in excruciating detail without worrying about giving away spoilers!
St Doctor’s Hospital is one of many improvised shows by The Free Association, an improv theatre company and school based in East London. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly restrictive title which is nothing more than a framework for the performers to base their elaborate and ridiculous narrative around, a narrative which is built literally in front of our eyes. The evening begins with a one-on-one conversation between one of the actors and a member of the audience, who serves as the muse for the show.
In the show I was at, the audience member picked was a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) player, who told us in some detail about a character he’d invented and how he spends his spare time. His day job, it transpired, was also in theatre – looking after a bunch of six year olds in a creative workshop environment. And that is literally all there is to kick off the show – the performers do the rest in real-time.
And so the story which unfolded in front of me was one of 300 year old wizards, prophecies, 6 year old trainee doctors, and two nerds who love D&D and are drawn together in a fight to save the hospital from a non-distinct threat of evil. Throw in Jerry Seinfeld (because why not?), an internal affairs officer, a stray comedian who is kidnapped by one of the doctors, and a jocks versus nerds showdown – and you’ve got yourself a show.
Improv is not a new concept. These days it is not particularly rare. This improv though, is of an extremely high standard. The players are all clearly accomplished in their craft and have an excellent rapport with one another. The ability to be able to connect with each other on an instinctive and unspoken level is captivating, and more than once I found myself open mouthed at the creativity and sheer stupidity of the humour. I had only consumed one pint of beer and yet at times I found myself questioning my state of sobriety such is the chaos and imagination thrown out on-stage by the cast, with each tap-in and scene change bringing with it more hilarity and wit.
You have to marvel at the ability of the players to weave threads into one main plotline. Despite some branches of the story which ultimately lead nowhere, I was impressed by the continuity here and the recognisable recurring characters which the cast are able to craft on the spot. By the end of the hour long show you do find yourself bought-into the success or failure of particular individuals in the plot, which is a real achievement given their backstories are non-existent. A shout-out here also for the way in which the improv is structured, with flashbacks used in a really inventive and almost cartoon-like fashion (think Family Guy or How I Met Your Mother style).
The lighting was also used to great effect in a way which is almost editorial, fading blackouts indicating the end of a particular scene or to bail the actors out of trouble if they stumbled down a dialogue dead-end. Thankfully this only happened a couple of times but that’s in contrast to the rest of the show which was excellent, which is probably why it stood out.
I had an absolute ball at St Doctor’s Hospital. It reminded me why I love improvised comedy and how talented you must be to do it well. Good improvised comedy has you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what happens next, without ever truly feeling like the show is in danger of derailment. You have to trust in the actors, that they will make you invest in the story with just enough passion that you care about what’s next, and that they will provide enough light-hearted comedy that you forget it could all go wrong with one bad prompt.
The Free Association players are all masters of their craft, and this show is a supreme demonstration of it. I’m already checking out the dates of their next show – and so should you.
St Doctor’s Hospital played at VAULT Festival 15-18 February 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/st-doctors-hospital/.
For future information about The Free Association and to attend one of their other shows, workshops or training courses, visit: https://thefreeassociation.co.uk/.