The masters of improvisation are back!
They were last on a stage together in August 2019, but now nothing is going to prevent the on-the-spot and off-the-cuff comedy antics of Paul Merton’s Impro Chums. The adlibbing troupe – comprising Mike McShane, Suki Webster, Richard Vranch, Kirsty Newton, and, of course, Paul Merton – could barely be happier that they are now returning to the nation’s stages with another selection of games spurred on by those all-important audience suggestions. As the group limbers up for a national tour, they discuss the Chums’ love of playing games, Kirsty’s debut tour of duty in 2019 and why the ‘c’ word is not welcome at their shows . . .
So, we should get this out the way first: do you think it’s likely that Covid will be mentioned during a game or will you avoid it like the plague?
Richard Vranch: I did quite a few shows back at the Comedy Store after a 16-month break and weirdly it hasn’t come up from an audience in any of the suggestions. I’ve made a couple of jokes about it, because….they were very funny, but other than that it hasn’t actually been mentioned.
Paul Merton: My own view is that people would want to get away from it. Not every comedy show has to hold up a magnifying glass to society and be about how we live today. The whole idea of entertainment, for me, is to take you somewhere else, not to remind you of where you are.
Suki Webster: I think the particular form of comedy we do is about us having fun and being silly; it doesn’t lend itself to satire or in-depth discussion on difficult subjects because you’ve got four or five minds on stage all weaving in and out. The depth of it is in the joy and connection with each other and the audience. And we’re all going to be so giddy with excitement at being back together that I can’t see it being a focus.
PM: One of the highlights of the last tour was when we started throwing water at each other.
SW: That’s our level.
PM: What audiences like about what we do is that we haven’t lost our sense of play, our sense of fun, the sort of thing that gets knocked out of you because you have to get married or get a mortgage or find a job. We play and they enjoy watching us play.
What have you missed about the touring life?
RV: The thing I’ve missed is laughter. I’ve been watching a load of telly and there has been wonderful stuff produced by an arts industry that has been having a hard time. But I’ve really missed laughing with mates on the bus on the way to the gig and on stage during the gig.
Mike McShane: The last tour was exemplary for us as a group; it felt like a Marx Brothers show in the best way possible. We now had music from Kirsty and it was all very nice. Getting on the bus, checking in on each other, hanging out, acting like idiots. And doing the show is fantastic and everything you hope for.
Those 2019 shows marked Kirsty’s first Impro Chums tour of duty. What was your over-riding memory of the experience?
Kirsty Newton: I felt as though I’d been let into the coolest, funnest club ever and we had such a wonderful time. My over-riding sense of it is that it’s probably the best job in the world; just consistent fun and loveliness all the way. I’d say I have the best seat in the house: I’m up close and personal with everyone on the stage and I get to direct the music, making them explode into song mid-scene. Quite often I don’t know what’s going to come out of my fingers; that’s the joy of it.
PM: To adapt an old saying, you can lead Paul Merton to music but you can’t make him sing. But it was great having Kirsty there and there was more music in that show than before. Mike and Suki are very strong singers and Richard is very musical, of course, but I stay out of the way.
KN: I have one brilliant memory of going through the Scottish Highlands and sticking my head out of the bus going, ‘this is wonderful!’
MM: To pick up on that hanging out of the window, next year’s tour will be billed as ‘disturbing British livestock for over a decade’.
PM: Lock up your cows.
Without a script to learn, the notion of rehearsal is clearly very different for you as a group. But how do you get the comedy muscle moving before a show?
PM: The most important thing is to be together beforehand. So we’ll throw a ball around to be in each other’s orbit and to just tune in to each other.
KN: And we do a vocal warm-up to make sure the pipes are working and we don’t start off croaky.
RV: The preparation for the show is the decades that we’ve known and worked together. With a scripted show or a rock band, you’d start to get ‘musical differences’ round about year 15. I think I first appeared on stage with Paul in 1984, and with impro it’s about a group attitude and sense of fun. Weirdly, that matures like a good cheese or wine over the years and doesn’t fester like a rock band. So we put the work in by simply having done it for all this time and it just gets better and better.
PM: As Richard says, you can compare our group to a ripe cheese.
RV: Just in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re very self-deprecatory. With the way that comedy has become an industry, it’s a lot about ‘I’m great, I’m great, look at my Instagram!’ We’re a bit old-fashioned and normal about it. We’re not too showbizzy, which I quite like.
Finally, how important is the audience in making an Impro Chums show the best it can be?
SW: We’ve really missed the connection with an audience. If you’re doing a play or stand-up there’s a bit of us and them, but with our show it’s about everybody, because their energy and their suggestions build it in a way that no other show can have. Everything is happening in the moment and what they’re doing is absolutely crucial. When it goes right that means everyone is involved and having a good time. It’s like a big party!
Image by Steve Ullathorne.