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Review: The London 50 Hour Improvathon (Wilton's Music Hall)

Review by Harry Bower

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

Anyone who has ever stayed awake for longer than is sensible will be familiar with the sense of whimsical exhaustion which overtakes your body. Now imagine being awake for more than two full days, performing improvised comedy with your mates, in front of audience – much of whom are also sleep deprived. It sounds ill-advised, and that’s exactly how I would describe it. And, yet, every year this group of comedy sadists get together and attempt what is surely London’s longest show – fifty hours straight of improvisation. It is every bit as beautifully chaotic, mind-numbingly stupid, unstoppably random and bonkers as you would anticipate it to be, and I loved every hour I spent in their company.

 

I should add a disclaimer; I did not make the full 50 hours. I gave it a good stab though, and despite needing to maintain a sensible(ish) sleep pattern for the day job on Monday, I managed to sit in the same spot in the third row of Wilton’s Music Hall for about 28 hours in total. Including the entirety of Friday night/morning, I did three stints, meaning I saw the beginning, middle, and end of the narrative. Not a bad effort I thought, though it’s not a patch on the cast, crew, and some dedicated audience members who did the full show. Let me take you back in time and try to explain how an improvathon works.

 


It's 7pm on Friday evening. I took my seat with snacks and a pint of beer in-hand. This was my first ever Improv marathon, and as a huge fan of the format, my heart was beating with excitement and anticipation. The lights went down, a roar of applause went up, and we were introduced to our cast. This year’s theme was ‘wedding’, positioned in the marketing as though it were a romantic sitcom, with 25 episodes each lasting two hours, portioned up so that audience members could dip in for a few episodes at a time, or binge-watch. The cast grows, shrinks, and changes with one or two new performers introduced every few hours. Each character is given a couple of lines at the top of each episode which are designed to succinctly bring the audience up to speed on their wants, desires, or key bits of story that had affected them in previous episodes.

 

After episode one, feeling spritely and energetic, I linked up with a number of people in the audience whom I knew. We shared enthusiasm about the night ahead, blissfully unaware of the tale it would take on us, and the journey we were about to embark on with these characters. At 11pm I ate some sweets, and at 1am I was drinking a Ginger Beer. The bar staff were chirpy. The doors of the auditorium had been cracked open for some fresh air. By the time 5am hit I found myself chatting more to those near me – many of whom were considering doing the full fifty hours. There were lots of methods being deployed already to aid people in their quest. Constant snacking, water galore, power naps, fresh-air breaks. It wasn’t always successful, at around 4am we heard a couple of snores. At least the bar queue was non-existent.

 


When 7am arrived I figured I should head home for some sleep. Tearing myself away from the action was much harder than I had predicted. I mean, when you’re only 12 hours in and you’ve already seen a wedding between a woman and her possessed part-dog part-giraffe cuddly toy who pledges death to all humanity and opens up a portal to hell…you have to ask yourself how much you’re going to miss when you dip out for a few hours. Returning just a few hours later I found it surprisingly easy to pick the thread of the story back up, though I can see how audience members could be confused with a larger gap; there are giant leaps in long-form storytelling and huge gaps in narrative context.

 

Naturally some episodes are funnier than others of course but every inch of the funniness is earned painstakingly by the work of the superb ensemble perpetually listening to and enabling one another. A rotating cast (with actors flown in from around the world) makes for surprisingly good moments in which new bits of cannon narrative are revealed. By new improvisers appearing throughout the fifty hours, new energy and life is bought to the existing impov-world crafted on-stage, and the audience sat watching. Fan favourites also develop; a woman’s erotic book club, the ‘dullest game show on earth’, a three-headed dog which required its participants to be gloriously tied up with each other, physically. Because so much happens over the course of the show, in this Improvathon I observed a unique (and uniquely dangerous) position in which the audience know more about the context of the show than some of the actors do. This is utterly fascinating to watch, as new performers get up to speed in real-time.



All the usual improvised comedy mechanics and games are used across the fifty hours. Cast are used as objects, animals, decorations, plants; you name it. Wacky rules are inserted to mix up otherwise ordinary scenes – let me tell you, you’ve not lived until you’ve watched a scene of dialogue while the director completes their Duo Lingo streak for the day. And of course, sound effects and props are put to ridiculous use.

 

By the time my third stint arrived, things had taken a drastic turn for the weird. Not just in the show, either – where Sister Margaret had shot herself in the face and been resurrected – but in the auditorium too. Those still awake at 40 hours were delirious and couldn’t fully complete sentences. The bar staff, many on long, rotating shifts, had lost any sense of time. At one point I went for a walk during an interval, and upstairs came across two ushers serenading each other with a dance I can only describe as unhinged; both apologised (needlessly) and explained they were losing their minds a little. The communal aspect of the Improvathon is something I had hoped existed… to see it in all its glory, with cast, crew, venue staff and audience supporting each other on their mission…the cast with their kids in the bar during the break, family and friends hugging each other… Well to be truthful it made me feel a little emotional.



Sat downstage right, are two directors – Ali James, and Adam Meggido. The pair each have a microphone and are present for the full 50. Watching them direct this show was like watching two people drunk on responsibility – each using their unique power in mischievous and sleep-deprived ways to manipulate their cast into creating as many laughs as possible. For the entire show they prompted, directed, encouraged, and crafted; this improvathon would have been nothing without them. The same too, can be said for the live-band of rotating musicians who appeared throughout, scoring every single scene perfectly and providing the backing to the many musical numbers performed spontaneously by the cast. Their talent is phenomenal. It would be remiss not to mention the light operators here too, each crafting unique and quality lighting states for each atmospheric moment, plus custom and off-the-cuff projection backgrounds, which achieved their fair share of laughter.

 

It would be remiss of me not to mention those cast members who performed the full fifty hours. Gathered from improv and theatre companies across the world, from the likes of Showstoppers! and Mischief, this was a cast for the improv-comedy-ages. Seamus Allen, Ruth Bratt, Justin Brett, Jamie Cavanagh, Belinda Cornish, Alan Cox, Mats Eldøen, Dylan Emery, Charlotte Gittins, Gabrizio Lobello, Inbal Lori, Mark Meer, Nell Moonie Mackenzie and John Oakes – take a bow! You are heroes. Really, really silly heroes.



The longer the show goes on, the more in-jokes and throwbacks derail the narrative. The audience’s emotional investment in the show continues to build, and you start to realise that all of this time, energy and emotion is not just worth it; it might be the only thing that matters in your life. Together cast and audience have fully earned the elation when a long-running joke pays off, or a character you thought was lost forever, returns. That emotional investment extends beyond the theatre-going experience. Sometimes something unexpectedly poignant happens which creates a beautiful moment and prompts tears. At other times there are sequences which build and make you feel genuinely sad. The breakdown of human emotion due to the sheer tiredness you’re all experiencing is unique to this experience.

 

So what does this all mean? Well – it is impossible for me not to give The London 50 Hour Improvathon five stars. It is not only a hilarious experience but a heartwarming one too. It restores your faith in humanity, somehow, and when it’s over you feel bereft. Genuinely, an experience like this has the potential to be life-changing – and in fact that ended up to bethe case for two performers who got engaged to one another (for real) at the end of the show. I developed friendships with people in that room. I learned a lot about what makes me laugh. I grew deeply held feelings toward the cast and characters created and am filled with admiration for everyone who put themselves through the entire fifty hours. You are all completely, utterly, wonderfully bonkers. See you next year.

 

The London 50 Hour Improvathon played at Wilton’s Music Hall between 08-10 March. For more information visit: https://www.improvathon.co.uk/

 

Photos by Claire Bilyard

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