Edinburgh Fringe 2013
This globe-trotting show has been selling out at Edinburgh Fringe every year since 2008. Still fans return time and again, knowing that only a third of the show is scripted, so everything stays fresh. Basil, Sybil and Manuel serve up their madcap mayhem and a three-course meal with the audience as diners in their hotel. It’s two hours of fully immersive, highly improvised and site-specific comedy theatre. Just don’t mention the war!
A certain much-beloved and much-admired publisher of FringeReview has the unfortunate habit of speaking truth to improv. “Improv” he has been heard to say, “has gone stale. Not enough of it is unique to a particular performance. It’s all too staged. The golden age of shows such as Whose Line is it Anyway is past.” Certainly improv in the early 21st century has struggled to find a fresh format allowing performers to best demonstrate their range, reach and focus. It all seems very dull and hopeless. And then you find yourself standing in the queue for Faulty Towers The Dining Experience.
We are gathered beside B’est Restaurant – an eatery ideally situated between Bristo Square and the Pleasance. The crowd is big. There’s at least one office party in the house. Drinks are being served from a temporary bar by a bemused young waiter of foreign extraction who is getting expert in giving off what Jung identified as the ‘I-am-a-real-waiter-and-not-part-of-this-spoof-on-the-service-sector vibe.’ In a country not renowned for its approach to customer service, the fear of immediate, direct physical comparison with a certain mustachioed Barcelonian has a wonderful effect. My companion’s large denomination note cannot be broken but he is permitted to keep it and we can take our drinks away while change is gathered. Would that have happened without the spirit of Manuel lurking in the wings?
The bar tab, it turns out later, will make this a pricey night. The booze selection is modest. The wine is uninteresting. The beer less so. In fact, the only thing I’d change about this show are the ruinous drinks prices. £5 for a plastic glass of unaged vinegar is a bit steep. The show on the other hand is not only vintage Towers but the most exciting, pacy and disciplined piece of improv theatre to be seen in this young but promising century.
Rob Langston and Donna Gray are the unhappily married hoteliers with Terence Frisch as their put-upon employee. They shimmer into the crowd. Clearly this is going to be theatre in the all around, up close and very personal. The entertainment begins with a crowd-pleasing series of physical puns on themes familiar to Towers fans. The show bubbles with such riffs which appear, expand and burst out with a delightful charm and sparkle. “Serve the nibbles!” demands Langston, in a voice perspiring with so much catatonic fury. “Sí” responds Frisch crisply before ascending a step ladder and batting peanuts into the crowd. They say he who would pick a pun would pick a pocket – but through tears of laughter I don’t feel short changed.
Many pop-up Fringe venues struggle with sightlines. It’s not unknown for an audience to see straight into the wings where Edward VIII will be wandering around in his robot socks and CK pants. Since there are no wings Towers has no sightlines. The constitutional framers of the Audience’s Democratic Republic of Improv did not care if life for the actor is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In a room filled with an increasingly boozy clientele, where a pissed random from the pub next door wanders in to see what the noise is about, the temptation to break character before running off into the night must be overwhelming. My chief delight of the evening is to summon Langston (I am too polite to click) by calling ‘waiter!’ at him. He doesn’t actually hit me as through clenched teeth he explains for the 3rd time that he is the manager but the menace is there all the same.
The Current Mrs Dan hates audience participation. We don’t talk about the Richard Herring Incident. The genius of Towers as a production is how relaxing the chaos becomes. There is no sign that she is uncomfortable as Frisch starts headbutting her or when Gray showers her in peanuts – in fact she’s laughing like a drain. For all that this is a very big performance, three actors stepping into and comfortably filling VERY big shoes, there is subtlety and grace. Gutzon Borglum would have been proud and happy to have sculpted it.
This improv cannot be improved.