x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Comedy in the hands of masters

The group from Whose Line Is It Anyway proves that improvisational comedy does travel.

Andy Smart, Stephen Frost, Ian Coppinger, Richard Vranch and Stephen Steen perform Whose Line Is It Anyway? in Dubai on Saturday.
Andy Smart, Stephen Frost, Ian Coppinger, Richard Vranch and Stephen Steen perform Whose Line Is It Anyway? in Dubai on Saturday.

It sounds like the best job in the world: tipping up to the theatre with a bunch of mates and messing about on stage using only the whims of the audience for ideas. It's like a puppet show, except far, far funnier - and with rather more skill on the part of the puppets. The five-man team from London's Comedy Store Players who treated a crowd to 90 minutes of "improvisation, audience participation and comedy of the absurd" at the First Group Theatre in Dubai on Saturday were masters of improv - that most unpredictable and impressive of comedy turns. With the exception of Ian Coppinger, the troupe - Stephen Frost, Steve Steen, Andy Smart and Richard Vranch - has been appearing together for 25 years in Whose Line Is It Anyway? the stage version, and, as it happens, the precedent to the TV show that aired on British television from 1988 to 1998.

The words "audience participation" are often what keep people away from stand-up shows - not much matches the terror of being singled out by someone you know is going to humiliate you in front of a large crowd for their own comedic ends. But Frost pointed out: "We're not going to pick on you - we don't do that." There was an almost audible sigh of relief from the audience, and soon the suggestions were coming thick and fast: "lost at sea", "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs meet Gladiator", and "the Care Bears rob a bank" were just some of the pearls of inspiration provided by theatregoers. It was hard not to take a long, searching look at the people left and right of you. But, as Frost said: "The more weird and wonderful, the better."

They kicked things off with a story - a kind of verbal Consequences, where each player picked up at random where the last person left of. Absurd does not begin to describe the outcome of "Snoopy and the vase". Just as we were starting to see where the story was going, it would swiftly change tack and become even more preposterous. I could have listened all night. Goodness knows where we would have ended up.

In one of the high points of the first half, Vranch posed as a Mexican lecturer giving a talk about cactae. The combination of exaggerated actions and gabbled mock Spanish was pure comedy genius. We almost didn't need the translation from Coppinger. There was music, too, and Vranch, who played the piano on the television version of the show, leapt to the keyboard as a scene featuring Steen and Smart in a coal mine twisted and turned in theatrical styles ranging from rock opera to Shakespeare.

It was possible, at one point, to glimpse some of the skill involved in improv: during Freeze, a game in which the performers had to stop in whatever position they were in and anyone could take the scene on, Coppinger was standing with his hands on his hips and one of the others came out with "Ah, there are my scissors", and started trying to cut a piece of imaginary carpet with him (he is quite small). It showed how performers need a whole new mindset - like that required to do cryptic crosswords or Magic Eye puzzles - to spot a scene's comic potential.

The group's most powerful weapon is their dynamic, and they each bring a different nuance to the team: Vranch is great at the physical stuff; Steen does hilarious voices; Frost has the kind of authority that only comes from years of experience; Smart has a great eye for the absurd, and Coppinger, who is Irish, is like an indefatigable leprechaun. But as much as the content of their work is funny, it is almost more amusing to watch them react to each other. Frost spent about as much time laughing at his co-stars as he did coming up with his own jokes.

It is hard to fault such unpretentious, ad hoc entertainment, especially when delivered by a team of old pros. And since you are unlikely to be this amused again until at least September, if you don't already have tickets, get some - now. Whose Line Is It Anyway? (18+) will be at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Abu Dhabi tonight at 9pm (for tickets call 02 616 6122), and at the First Group Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, from Thursday to Saturday (for tickets, visit www.madinattheatre.com).