The modern setting of the newly built Boulevard Theatre in Soho is host to this rather wonderful, folk-inspired, improvised musical by The Yes Queens. Performed in January 2020, and recently uploaded to YouTube, These Folk is perfect if you’re missing live performance.
The newness of the Boulevard is epitomised in modern blue lit light panels surrounding the stage; the kind of setting I associate with a solemn Frantic Assembly-esque movement piece, certainly not improvised musical comedy. But performers Susan Harrison and Justin Brett relax any tension in the audience with their light-hearted exchanges with onlookers from the moment they came on stage.
The prompt “an ordinary mundane act” produces the story of Ecuador, sat in the audience, who has made a bag out of his grandparents’ curtains in an effort to improve his mood. Another person offers the London’s Pride march as their personal memory of Soho, which thus manifests the earlier idea into a hilarious, if slightly confusing tale. The lost soul, Ecuador, and privileged hostel owner, Morana, go on a journey of self-discovery from London, to the Pride march in Yugoslavia, and then back home to Manchester in 1982. (You kind of have to watch it to understand.)
A short, one-word story exchange between Brett and Harrison launches the improvised play into action. Witty puns, hilarious characters paired with clever musical performances, These Folk is really funny, right off the bat. Brett and Harrison work incredibly well together, of course musically, but most engagingly in their ability to bounce their quickly-manifested characters off each other without uncertainty. They balance the tropes of collaborative improvised performance while occasionally throwing the other a curve ball that leaves the audience laughing even harder. Not everything is executed perfectly, but that’s part of the fun.
With improv pieces, especially musical ones, there is a certain nervous anticipation and generosity from the audience, owing to the fact it is likely to *go slightly wrong*. However, These Folk certainly does not need it. Percussionist Rosie Bergonzi, and guitarist Curtis Volp, seamlessly accompany simple songs and playful harmonies, managing to take cues from the performers to make the piece quite seamless. The songs aren’t masterpieces, but the fact that I can still remember the melody of the closing number does say something.
Under this jovial atmosphere, I can’t forget what Brett introduced at the start: the “myth of the present”. Brett and Harrison focus on the history of physical places, which does play into the resolution of the play. As serious as this sounds, I think the success of These Folk lies in the fact it does not take itself seriously at all, but has enough elements of sincerity that the piece doesn’t collapse into mindlessness. After a quite beautiful opening song about sadness, one of my favourite moments sees Harrison’s effort to quickly establish the setting by exclaiming “This is just your average youth hostel. There’s nothing unusual about it, it’s just normal”; a perfect example of These Folk‘s perfect blend of self-awareness, with a commitment to the story and its characters- no matter how silly. If anything, the performance was slightly too long, but that is to be expected with improvisation.
If you have a spare 40 minutes, These Folk is a hugely entertaining watch. It’s completely free, and funny from start to end.
Words by Dulcie Godfrey.
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