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‘Brisbane Improv Festival’ // Big Fork Theatre

‘Brisbane Improv Festival’ was amusing.

The Brisbane Improv Festival has been playing to a dedicated group of fans this last week. A tightknit community, the festival began in 2021 and this year featured 23 improvised shows from around Australia and New Zealand playing at Big Fork Theatre in Fortitude Valley. I attended the festival on Wednesday the 26th, a night dedicated solely to homegrown improv from groups based in Brisbane.

‘Poop Joggers’ was stupid.

The first show of the evening was ‘Poop Joggers.’ Slightly less ridiculous than it sounds, the four performers in this act (Taylor Edwards, Coen Gilbert, Cameron Watson and Chris Martin) took audience suggestions for a title and then improvised a fairy tale based on that title. The name of this fairy tale was “The Loneliest Ghost.”

While it took a while for this piece to find its footing, the four performers all played off each other’s strengths very well and much of the humour was found in moments where one tripped another up. The plot did not really resemble a fairy tale, more just a bizarre story with fantasy and sci-fi elements. It was presented more like a movie, with actors ending scenes by saying “cut” and then setting up the next location.

Over time, the performers started leaning further and further into the inconsistencies and absurdities they had set up, turning their weaknesses into strengths and giving everyone the opportunity to do something ridiculous. One highlight was when Edwards forgot that it was midnight in the scene and declared that it would soon be morning. Gilbert quickly jumped on this and got a massive laugh by clarifying that the scene actually took place in Iceland.

One thing this act could have benefitted from was a musical element. Some stings or transitional music would have really helped bring the atmosphere up and sell the “fairy tale” aspect, even when improvising a story that is absolutely not a fairy tale like this one. ‘Poop Joggers’ kicked off a little awkwardly and its performers didn’t appear totally comfortable until the second or third scene came along, but a tone-setter like that may have given the show more direction in the early stages.

‘Poop Joggers’ was a great way to kick off the evening. With a no-holds-barred approach to reality, it set the tone for how stupid things could get and entertained its audience with some whacky, nonsensical supernatural hijinks.

‘The Family’ was self-serious.

Double-billed with ‘Poop Joggers’ was ‘The Family,’ a performance following a mafia family trading in an audience-suggested item but plagued with a randomly chosen rat in the group. Playing heavily into mafia movie stereotypes and family drama, the cast of six took the opportunity to create and deconstruct some strong, eccentric characters.

In this iteration, the titular Family was a distributor of birdseed, with an underlying plot surrounding the paternity of eldest son Paolo (Pablo de Jesus). The strongest and funniest dynamic explored in this act was between Paolo and his younger brother Alfonse (Alex Simpkins). Paolo’s domineering persona fit right in with a mafia family while Simpkins’ Alfonse acted more like a bratty younger brother that had no business being involved in any organised crime, and the way they played off of each other led to constant laughs.

As far as the “rat” angle went, the audience was tasked with figuring out who it was, but the nature of the story meant that multiple characters were committing acts of sabotage anyway. But, as with most improv games, it was more of a catalyst to get the story moving rather than a game that was meant to be taken seriously.

Each performer was comedically gifted, and ‘The Family’ hit the ground running straightaway with self-important, morally dubious characters. While not every moment was a slam dunk, the act had a strong start and a strong conclusion, as de Jesus and Simpkins once again stole the show by eating rose petals in a confusing power play while everyone died.

‘Blokes’ was tender.

The next act of the Wednesday night program at Brisbane Improv Festival was ‘Blokes.’ Grounded and simple, the act followed two men (Glenn Seaby and Luke Rimmelzwaan) as they sat at a bar and had a chat. The topics ranged from different audience suggestions about a variety of things ranging from the silly to the serious. As the act progressed, three other performers (Adam O’Sullivan, Becky Beverly and Leica Baker) would periodically interject with a scene or concept from one of the titular blokes’ past or a reflection of their inner monologue.

Opening on the topic of plaques, Rimmelzwaan took the lead in the conversation by expanding into a discussion about how much he hates awards, specifically plaques. From here, the discussion spun out in various directions, ultimately revealing Rimmelzwaan’s more personal issues surrounding a severe drinking problem and a failed personal life. The two men played off each other very well, with a lot of natural banter that led to some comedy and some gut-punches as more saddening details came out.

Seaby and Rimmelzwaan’s chemistry was undeniable and the act thrived while they were leading the charge. However, the added element of the other three performers was less convincing and often fell flat. The act could have perhaps benefitted from more structure, with a clear point for their interjections, as it often felt like they were simply interrupting the conversation to do a flashback or sequence that wasn’t entirely necessary nor was it as interesting as the conversation already going on. The only interjection that added a lot of genuine value to the scene was O’Sullivan’s brief stint as Seaby’s conscience, as it was a great way to bring levity to a heavy dialogue and allowed Seaby the freedom to step out of the moment and get a new perspective. Other interjections did assist in sending the conversation in a new direction, but their incorporation still felt awkward.

The act went on for an hour as opposed to the half hour of the previous acts of the evening. This gave the performers more freedom to take their time in addressing the heavy subject matter of the act, however I feel it would have benefitted from either more structure (as previously mentioned) or from just being a half-hour act that only featured the two “blokes” and kept its focus squarely on them. In its current form, the act had some dead space.

As a work of realism and grounded serio-comedy, ‘Blokes’ succeeded in capturing a modern friendship between two men. Neither man was painted as the antagonist, nor were their issues treated with derision. Instead they both just came across as fully formed characters trying to navigate the changing landscape of masculinity in good faith. Their friendship was genuinely touching and it shone through the act’s funniest and darkest moments.

Cage Match

The night was rounded off with a “Cage Match” between three acts. Each had 15 minutes to present an act that would be in competition with the other two. The winning team was ‘Scourge.’ Presented by Cameron Watson and Mark Grimes, this act stood out among the rest for managing to construct an out-and-out farce on the fly. Watson and Grimes jumped between characters as a wife made porridge for her husband and arranged an orgy with the milkman. The act fully picked up steam when Watson entered as the couple’s son, and the comedy came in spades as the various characters attempted to justify the situation and came up with increasingly elaborate excuses.

Brisbane Improv Festival and Big Fork Theatre continue to impress and delight, highlighting the dedicated performers in the local improv scene. It will be a treat to see what acts they have on display next year.

‘Brisbane Improv Festival’ performed until Saturday, 29 July 2023 at Big Fork Theatre. For more information visit their website.

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