It would be easy to suggest that if the idea of improvisation and audience participation are not your thing, then perhaps the latest offering from Durham’s own improvisation troop will not be for you. But after last night’s performance of Shellshock!: The Directors Cut, it is difficult to see how even the harshest sceptics could find fault in the troupe’s hysterical performance. Intimately presented in the DSU’s Kingsgate Room, the whole evening puts the audience firmly in control of a string of strange dream like re-imaginings of classic films and original concoctions, from the Terminator’s origins in Abergavenny and a Geordie David Tennant rehearsing for his latest project to a sketch that can only be described as ‘Snakes on a Boat’.
In matching white shirts and maroon braces, Steve Worsley and Charles Hindley seamlessly shapeshift throughout their half of the show. Starting strong with a Spielberg-inspired performance of SpongeBob SquarePants, the pair show the sheer force that can be found in a well-tuned improvisation duo. The audience’s cries of ‘take two’ provoke a seemingly endless number of new and unique lines culminating in a love affair between SpongeBob and Patrick that is truly worthy of its own soap opera. The duo aptly change tone from line to line and even word to word with a flexibility that is wholly unsettling, but in an electric and exhilarating way.
The pair go on to devise a scene from ‘Little Women’ using an audience member’s text conversation as material for their characters, culminating in the bizarre image of a March sister standing by a lamp post in Durham discussing the Coronavirus. The game-like format of the show keeps the audience invested in the duo’s work, which is given form and structure through the rules placed on each sketch, policed by those watching. Spectator’s ‘oohs’, clicking fingers and tumultuous applause guide the actors as they expertly guess who and where they are in any scene.
For Worsley and Hindley, the evening culminates in a wholly improvised version of ‘The Terminator’, seeing the men transform one last time into a seven-year-old Welsh ‘Terminator’ from Abergavenny (‘I’m the only robot in the village’), his frail 94-year-old grandfather and a Norfolk farmer (who looks suspiciously similar to Hindley’s 94-year-old Welshman). While this longer sketch suffers somewhat from a stagnation of pace, it still exemplifies the hilarity that arises from a performer’s willingness to simply say ‘yes’ to whatever is thrown at them. Mistakes (if you could even call them that) become opportunities for clever retorts and quick-witted adaptions, while their resolute commitment means that whatever strange world the pair present, the audience will buy in to it.
While the Director’s Cut duo take their bows before the interval, the evening does not end there. The second half sees performances from Durham’s own Shellshock! take their turn in the loose form of an improvisation contest for the coveted prizes of two plastic dinosaurs and a pair of cat ears (cue audience ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’). Following on from the professional duo, the Durham performers fare very well, again showing what can come from a close-knit troop of performers supporting and helping each other, while simultaneously being willing to throw each other under the bus for a punchline. Particular highlights include an amusing discussion between a ship’s captain and her engineer about how and why snakes managed to find their way into the engine of the ship, the narration of a three-way cowboy style show off between Papa John, Grandpapa banana and a giant talking watermelon and the utterly believable image of three performers suspended in a giant paper balloon on the international space station.
Rounding off the evening sees the performance end as strong as it begins. In the form of an improvised TEDTalk on stuffed animals, the final sketch features a manic performer describing the gruesome and unexpectedly fleshy reality of children’s teddies for ninety seconds, to riotous laughter.
From start to finish this evening of improvisation could end up anywhere, with unexpected twists and turns expertly guided to hilarious effect. The only thing that can be guaranteed is that you’ll be leaving the performance warm and entertained, wishing you had the wit and commitment of these outstanding performers.