As we find our seats we meet Sam Cochrane and Alex Prescot, accompanied by Jordan Clarke on the keys. They are welcoming and high-energy, making us all feel very at ease. Improv performers often hide backstage before being brought on by an announcement, but immediately meeting the pair is charming and probably reassuring for first-time improv-goers frightened at being spoken to. We could have done with more practice at shouting out suggestions, but when no one shouts out any gossip for the pair to use as inspiration for the plot, the duo expertly guide us through. Their energy was infectiously lovely.
The pair introduce us to their guest of the day, Ali James, who performs with the UK’s most successful musical improv troupe Showstopper. James’ singing expertise is clear, her accents brilliant, and her shameless face-pulling addictive to watch. Audiences watching improv want to trust the performers in front of them, and I trusted James entirely.
I admit that I was initially wary when I spotted the hat stand of costumes and accessories on stage. I worried that they’d be used lazily: as an easy replacement for having properly developed characters and clear scene changes. This was never an issue with the Bean Spillers, who don’t need these get-out-of-jail-free cheats—they’re too good for that.
Clarke is a remarkable musician. Both reactive and intuitive, he guides the performers into songs and pulls hummable tunes from thin air once the performers give hints that they’re ready to sing. He has an improvisor’s instinct as well as a world-class mastery of composing. It’s great to see an improv show where musician and performers are equal in taking on the duty of initiating the songs: oftentimes the pianist can be sat there for uncomfortably long, ‘pimping’ a song that never happens, or the performer is too keen and takes the musician by surprise. The Bean Spillers have got this relationship just right.
The pair know how to put together a gripping plot. They create excellent tension (‘___ knows ___ from days of old’) and aren’t afraid to fast-forward through time in order to get to the crux of the action.
Prescot and Cochrane are at times too apologetic for minor slip ups in the plot. Little comments—“is that me?”, or asking if they’re in the right setting—can be useful to ingratiate the performers with the audience (because they translate like “whoops, isn’t this silly? please like me!”) but there was no need for them to do this. They are expert performers and it’s only these moments of self-doubt that are disappointing.
I’d love to see the Bean Spillers in a venue with a lighting tech, to see what they could do with black-outs, scene setting lights, etc. It’d be great to watch them do something big-budget—they’re sure good enough.
You know when you watch a play and you forget that the actors are real people? You find yourself in a sort of trance, having become so used to watching television. I realised half-way through that I was enjoying myself so much I had entirely forgotten that this was three real people, making this up and working hard to pick up each other’s plot lines. Improv is difficult, and the Bean Spillers make it look like playtime.
They do end up in knots at the end which means the final scene was a little unsatisfactory. But here’s the thing: you don’t come to improv for a solid plot line. You come for the laugh-a-minute which the Bean Spillers truly give us. I love leaving a show hearing the audience talking about their favourite bits, or quoting a line. While some audience members admitted to each other that they were a bit lost at the end, the consensus on having had a great night was unanimous.
Reviewing improv is difficult because it’s a lottery for what you get. Some gigs are great, some are less great; one night’s story is never going to be seen again, so it’s not worth dissecting the specifics of any given show. I have no doubt that Bean Spillers have created tighter plots and catchier choruses in their time. I very much doubt they’ve ever given their audiences a bad night out. Despite the randomness of what you get with an improv show, there are certain indicators you can pick up on as to whether a group are excellent or whether they just had a particularly good gig. One indicator is how much fun they have with each other, and how supportive they are to each other on stage. Cochrane and Prescot are wonderful to watch and so clearly enjoy performing with each other.
I highly recommend The Bean Spillers and advise you to see them when you next get the opportunity.
Words by Verity Babbs
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