Haggerston Improv Festival


by Joanna Orland

This past weekend, London improv collectives Monkey Toast and The Free Association jointly hosted the first annual Haggerston Improv Festival. Dividing their shows between Haggerston’s Proud Archivist and The ARTSpace, the festival not only exposed the art of improv to a wider audience, but also raised money for charity with all proceeds from the weekend going to Crohn’s and Colitis UK, Tropical Isles and The Woodland Trust.

The improv festival featured some of the UK’s finest improvisers including Abandoman, Austentatious, Paul & Cariad (sans Cariad), Grand Theft Impro and more.  To kick off the event, Monkey Toast: The Improvised Chat Show welcomed special guests Dr. Bu Hayee who is responsible for saving Monkey Toast founder David Shore’s life, as well as the legendary Clive Anderson from Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

Here are a few of the festival’s highlights:

Monkey Toast

by Richard Hamer

Launching the Haggerston Improv Festival was Monkey Toast, a unique brand of chat show where the interview itself is broken up by short, improvised sketches based on the guest’s answers. As the launch show, it was both exciting and suitably fitting that the special celebrity guest was Clive Anderson, whose work hosting Whose Line Is It Anyway? remains – for many people – the only real mainstream point of reference for improvised comedy here in the UK.

Needless to say, Mr. Anderson came across as a Really Quite Lovely Man in a fun little show that acted as a decent primer for improv newbies. The standard of comedy was high, with the performers milking every turn of phrase or old anecdote for everything it’s worth, twisting and reincorporating different stories into ever stranger and unusual shapes.

If there’s any frustrations to be had here, it’s that the interview itself is little more than a springboard/elaborate excuse for the comedy and, while fun, not especially illuminating in itself. It creates a sense that comedy and interview are two disparate events – almost entirely unrelated – that just happen to be occurring at the same time. Though both are entertaining in their own right, they don’t produce something with the cohesion of a truly ‘great’ show.

But they do produce a very good show, one whose format is clearly wide and varied enough to provide a rich seam of comedy inspiration for some of London’s best improvisers.


by Richard Hamer

Austentatious is an improvised play based on an immediately appealing premise: the players make up and perform the plot of an entire ‘lost’ Jane Austen novel, on the spot.

From a hat they draw a novel title suggested by an audience member on the way in. For this particular showing, it was something ridiculous about hedgehogs.

Performed in full period costume, the players merrily chew the scenery through every kind of Victorian literary archetype: kindly country pastors, foppish dandies and all manner of panicky milquetoasts get an airing. As might be expected of an Austen parody, the plot consists of near constant speculation as to who is marrying who. Sadly, the link to hedgehogs is tangential at best.

Also, it’s hilarious.

Austentatious has managed to carve themselves up a successful little niche in the world of improvised comedy, and it’s not hard to see why. While the premise may be what gets people in through the door, it’s how well the players work together that keeps them coming. Their incredible command and understanding of the invisible spaces they’re occupying allows for countless little sight gags with props you can’t see, playful use of the stage, and callback after callback after callback.

With Austentatious you get to experience that simple pleasure that comes from just watching people who are good at what they do, doing it. These are improvisers with well-honed talent and natural wit, having fun with a setting that is a goldmine for farce.

So go see it! An appreciation of the life and works of Jane Austen is not required.

2Prov Double Bill: Folie a Deux & Mike and Jim

by Joanna Orland

The 2Prov Double Bill of Mike & Jim and Folie a Deux was not only a lesson in how to improvise, but it was also a brilliant study on the differences between American and British improv / impro.

The double bill opened with American improvisers Mike OT & Jim Woods performing their excellent high energy set.  The stories they told were just as good as the characters they created as Superman, Cobra Commander, multiple G.I. Joes and Kofi Annan all graced the stage to share with us the evils of NATO.  Mike and Jim use such distinct physicality and voice in the characters they create, that either of them can take on any character and have the audience know exactly who they’re playing.  Their level of commitment to the moment was brilliant, not letting any mistake or slip of the tongue go, committing to anything and everything that was happening on stage.  And it was happening everywhere.

American improv is very much about using the stage and physicality to tell a story, while British improv is more about wordsmithery, as aptly demonstrated in Folie a Deux‘s lower energy, but not less brilliant set.  The pair began their show with in character monologues where the audience met philosophy teacher Mr. Sprain who was being brutally teased by his students for having such a ridiculous name, as well as a lovelorn woman creating her latest dating profile.  Wit and banter rather than overt physicality or distinct characters dominated the stage as Folie a Deux (also known as Andrew Hunter Murray and Charlotte Gittins of Austentatious) did Britain proud.

Paul & Cariad: A Two Person Adventure

by Joanna Orland

Paul & Cariad weren’t quite the same without Cariad, but as David Reed of The Penny Dreadfuls stepped in to fill Ms. Lloyd’s big improv shoes, this two person adventure got well underway.  Straying into the absurd and the silly, Paul Foxcroft and David Reed had so much fun with their scenes and characters that the enjoyment was infectious.  The two interwoven story arcs saw fishing friends go off to solve one of their father’s murder, while the other story focused on flatmates, one a scientist, the other a night bus driver.  Hilarity ensued.

Plot and characters aside, this show was just outright fun.  Not taking itself too seriously, but still managing an engaging plotline and endearing characters is basically achieving the perfect improv show.  While there were some moments of finding their footing as Paul does not have the same immediate improv rapport with David as he does Cariad, these awkward moments were immediately embraced and then quickly forgotten as even Paul himself seemed amused by their occasional miscommunication.

While Paul & Cariad are two of London’s best improvisers, and as a duo they are outstanding, I can’t help but feel blessed to have witnessed the rare Paul & David: A Two Person Misadventure, and hope they find themselves going on many more in the future.


by Richard Hamer

It goes like this: You sit down with your fellow audience members and Abandoman – the world’s premiere Irish improvisational hip-hop group – stand on stage, chatting to all of you. Front-man Robert Broderick always has that uncanny ability to win over a crowd with the kind of affable personality your average politician would kill to possess. You can’t help but be swept up into a spirit of good cheer, even before he has – in fact – done anything.

Eventually they start to rap, spitting out made up rhymes based on the lives, jobs and pet peeves of the audience. It’s tremendous fun, delivered just fast enough, and with lyrics just clever enough, that you can’t quite believe that he’s coming up with it on the spot.

And if you are lucky enough to be included as the subject of one of their songs – as I was at their Haggerston gig – then it’s even better. Abandoman has always been a party – that’s the highest recommendation to go see them that anyone can give – but when the rap is about you, then for a little while it becomes your party.

For a brief, wonderful moment there existed in the world a hip-hop tune about fire alarms, Amiga 500 computers and how much I enjoy Super Mario Bros. It was gone in the blink of an eye, never to be repeated, but for me – as for many others – it’s probably the closest we’ll come to the world of hip-hop, or, for that matter, the world of improvised comedy.

It is a precious, silly memory.



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