‘Brisbane Improv Festival’ was raucous.
Improv is an art form with a high risk/reward ratio. Sometimes it gets a bad reputation but when it’s done well it can lead to some of the funniest live theatre there is. Brisbane Improv Festival, hosted by Big Fork Theatre, presented some improvised theatre that had its audience laughing, cheering, and sometimes even awing at the stories that were being told as soon as they were thought up by a group of talented performers.
‘Hard Boiled Dick’ was slick.
The first show attended by this reviewer was ‘Hard Boiled Dick.’ A detective noir mystery presented by Edge Improv. Two performers, Brad Daniels and Chris Milne were tasked with creating a hard-boiled noir mystery based on audience suggestions. One of them played a detective and the other played every other character in the story, the only catch being that they didn’t know which would be which until the show began.
In this iteration, the detective was played by Milne who immediately set the scene with an off-the-cuff monologue about his grizzled detective’s youth. Jumping from childhood games of hop-scotch immediately into a story about hard drugs set the tone splendidly for a show that consisted of over-the-top dark comedy. Daniels jumped from a German femme fatale to a Russian union leader to a man who worked in a dog-oriented junkyard, chewing up the scenery with ridiculous, barely consistent accents and a penchant for disturbing details.
What really made ‘Hard Boiled Dick’ stand out was its atmosphere, which was elevated tenfold by its live band the Over-Easy Trio (consisting of Reuben Nielsen, Glenn Stephens and [name redacted]). It’s incredible what a little bit of jazzy music can do to transport an audience back to the 1930s.
‘Hard Boiled Dick’ was a strong entry to the Brisbane Improv Festival. With the right level of ridiculousness while still keeping things vaguely in the noir genre, Milne, Daniels and the Over Easy Trio gave the audience a captivating, escalating, if a bit illogical, hard-boiled mystery.
‘Once More With Feeling’ was sweet.
Double-billed with ‘Dick’ was ‘Once More With Feeling,’ a spontaneous musical that was improvised based on a randomly chosen audience suggestion. This particular piece was called ‘Bridge.’ ‘Once More With Feeling’ was cast from Brisbane Improv Festival’s workshops, with a group of performers of varying experience taking on an immense challenge.
What was immediately striking about ‘Bridge: The Musical’ was that once the performers got past the ridiculousness of starting a story about a bridge, they would usually turn the story into an introspective tale about two characters developing a relationship. It was surprising how quickly the stories turned into something genuinely wholesome that evoked an “aww” from the audience. Songs were usually duets between two characters falling in love or simply affirming a friendship.
The only thing that might have improved ‘Bridge: The Musical’ would be if it was all tied together by an overarching plot. Its players opted to perform loose vignettes that were either about a bridge or loosely tied back to a bridge (or in one case, a dentist performing bridge work). While this did allow the performers more creative freedom, the payoff of seeing an entire story constructed from beginning to end would have been more satisfying.
Each performer was musically and comedically gifted, and ‘Once More With Feeling’ exposed some genuine heart from its performers. Contrasting with the ludicrousness of ‘Hard Boiled Dick,’ ‘Once More With Feeling’ was a comparatively grounded (though that’s not saying much) and sweet piece.
‘Game of Life’ was intimate.
The last performance of the Sunday night program at Brisbane Improv Festival was ‘Game of Life,’ which followed ten performers grouped into five couples, chronicling the beginning of a relationship through to its 20th anniversary. ‘Game of Life’ was the most structured of the shows, with the audience picking the couples and the timeline pre-set, but every other detail was left up to the performers.
Whether they intended to or not, this iteration of ‘Game of Life’ managed to very nearly encapsulate the full gamut of relationships and the stories that can be told around them. It jumped around from the grounded to the absurd, with traditional relationships, same sex relationships, and relationships involving demons and snake people. Some stories ended with a wholesome old couple celebrating their anniversary with fondness, others ended in a broken-down relationship with some figurative and literal backstabbing.
Each story was funny and occasionally quite touching in its own way, and the performers ought to be commended for the breadth of the stories they were able to tell. ‘Game of Life’ was also cast from workshops, with a concept brought over from Wellington, New Zealand.
Brisbane Improv Festival’s Sunday night program had its audience in stitches, and the calibre of performers on display was impeccable. The Brisbane improv scene is something to keep an eye out for in future.
‘Brisbane Improv Festival’ performed until Saturday, 19 November 2022 at Big Fork Theatre. For more information visit their website.