Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Jane Austen wrote many books. So many, in fact, that it’s down to this improv group to make them up on the spot for you. Taking audience suggestions, this is a genuinely novel approach for an entertaining sixty minutes ..
‘It’s wonderful, isn’t it?’ marvels a woman waiting in a line of hundreds outside the Udderbelly. ‘A few years ago, they were getting coins in a bucket in the back of a room. Now look at them.’ Indeed – now look at them. The realised dream of the Edinburgh Fringe: Hit upon an idea that will be funny enough, or zeitgeisty enough, to catch fire with audiences, and become a fringe success story.
And it’s worked. It’s easy to see why. The simple truth is that Austentatious are excellent. It’s nothing more complicated than that. They throw smart ideas to each other with abandon, all of which are deftly caught and developed. Jokes are never over-laboured (there’s a remarkable, refreshing confidence in the audience’s intelligence), and each performer treats the other with a love and cheerfulness that translates into a strong story. What’s particularly attractive is the way that, on the rare occasion an improviser goes blank or is unsure, and a weak or confused idea is fumblingly offered, someone else in the troupe will grab hold of it like it’s a moment of genius. Therefore, of course, within moments, it really is just that – a moment of genius. On only a very few occasions does it feel like the story is meandering with no sense of direction, and those moments only last a few seconds – literally – before the punchy energy zips the story along to the next chapter. Such (barely noticeable) moments only serve, of course, just to underline just how genuinely improvised all of this is.
You want the obvious lazy hack line? Alright, we’ve waited long enough – here’s the obvious lazy hack line. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any improv group in need of funny suggestions from audience members will find that audiences generally are not nearly as amusing as they think they are. It’s certainly likely to be true in whatever show you see that the audience suggestions (made-up names for an undiscovered Jane Austen novel) are a somewhat forced attempt to be funny. But, as improvisers, they take whatever curveball they’re thrown, and – once again – treat every offer like it is the work of genius.
Narratively, here’s a certain amount of anachronism in the hour, but impressively, this never feels like an easy gag. Mainly, this is because any references to modern devices or organisations are folded back into the Austen-era narrative as not only commonplace, but necessary: you can’t imagine the story surviving without them. In this reviewed performance, a discussion of the over-abundance of Pret-A-Mangers in a small fishing village dovetailed neatly with the villainy of an invading French couple, so much so that would be difficult for audiences to recall which plot point led to the other.
Austenatious! are clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of witty conversation and are certainly good company. And you can probably guess who came up with that line first.