“Shellshock!’s Hill vs Bailey show is full of hits”

Comedy is decidedly hit-or-miss. Subjectivity of audience response aside, every performance from a troupe is a rehearsal. Even in scripted comedy, everything from the pace of scenes to line delivery is in immediate response to audience reception. This is double for improvised comedy, which by its unscripted nature is a live first draft! So you should take it as the highest of compliments when I say that Shellshock!’s Hill vs Bailey show is full of hits.

I saw the show, on its one and only night, in the Vane Tempest room at the Students’ Union. It’s not exactly an impressive theatre, but it doesn’t need to be. With Shellshock!’s brand of interactive comedy, placing the audience on the same level as the performers is to their advantage.

That brand takes the form of a series of games. Staged improvisational comedy is not dissimilar to something like Taskmaster. Here, instead of physical challenges, the focus is on creative performances. The majority of games begin with the compère (here: Ben Bradley) asking the audience for suggestions to paint the scene; for example, a location or profession. It’s an important step for keeping the audience engaged, not least because it’s fun to shout things out and watch the performers struggle with the challenges you set. From there, each game has its own set of constraints, and it is here that the comedy is truly cooked. 

The form itself is just the foundation on which the performers must build, however – and so it is fortunate that they are talented craftspeople indeed. The compère introduces and closes each scene while guiding the audience participation. He also keeps track of points, because this show is presented as a competition between teams Hill and Bailey. This setup also provides much of the banter between the performers, and the audience feels encouraged to boo and cheer their respective teams. The points system is largely a well-played farce. Mainly they are given to teams after performing a scene together, but if one team theatrically rubs the compère the wrong way then he’s liable to give points to the opposition out of spite. These points are tallied on a whiteboard which also includes a ‘negative points’ section for Bradley himself, and tend to be deducted from him after a knowingly bad pun or after he – less knowingly – trips backwards into the board itself. It is a suitably silly system for a delightfully silly competition. Those stumbles and puns are all part of Bradley’s admirable comedic stamina, as he carries the show forward at a breathless pace. At the beginning, most audience members were a little nervous to participate. The energy is so infectious, however, that by the end everyone responded to his requests for suggestions at some point.

One particular game begins with 4 improvisers playing circus performers. A juggler (Arthur Drury) accidentally tosses his balls so high that they breach the atmosphere, and a child is thrown up into the sky to catch them, until an evil clown (Nemo Royle) blasts them out of the sky with a squirty flower. The catch here is that once the scene is complete (at the compère’s behest), the improvisers must vote one of their own off the stage, and repeat the scene with someone doubling up for the missing character. This repeats until only one (Emily Kelly) is left. With tremendous chaos, she runs around the stage as all 4 characters, leaping into the air as the flung child and throwing herself back to play the evil clown. It is surreal, hilarious, and the type of scene that could not be accomplished in any other comedic form.

Each one of the performers also carries that vigour in a different way, fuelling the many characters they invent over the course of the show. This variance in character means that every grouping, every scene, is completely different. Scenes that don’t land as well are frequently followed by one of the best in the show, and Bradley does a good job of stepping in before a weaker scene threatens to drag.

Bailey’s Arthur Drury and Hill’s George Lea fall towards the more natural end. Drury generates a surreal, hammy awkwardness into characters like Burt Reynolds’ son, sprawling himself across two chairs as if they’re a chaise lounge. Lea plays with snarky, human personas; at one point he plays a surprisingly convincing single mother, which works in comical contrast against the more outlandish characters in the same scene. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are Emily Kelly and Will Hines, both representing Bailey. Kelly gives a sharp, dynamic performance, with electric physicality and a penchant for terrible innuendos. This reaches its height in the aforementioned game where she simultaneously plays 4 different characters in the same scene. Hines tends towards melodrama by employing tremendous, booming projection; best exemplified as, with Homeric gravitas, he narrates a story about Little Red Riding Hood rubbing suncream on a hunky Big Bad Wolf.

The remaining performers – Hill’s Asare Marriott-Semper and Nemo Royle – are the most eccentric and the most uniquely physical. Marriott-Semper hunches and stalks around the stage in a spiderlike manner; matching these zany movements with perfectly offbeat timing. A stand-out character from him is ‘Snailius’ – a quiz show contestant who happens to be the god of snails. Royle, on the other hand, moves almost like a cartoon character and shows an admirable ability to give physical traits to a persona upon the moment of creation. They excelled in the previously mentioned circus themed-sketch, playing a villainous circus clown.

The one true weakness of the night was the show’s low attendance, which is unfortunate but no fault of the performers. It is the end of second term, multiple DST plays have been scheduled the previous weekend, and most people are panicking over summatives. It’s a great shame – however, you wouldn’t know that from watching the show. Everybody on stage performed with such incredible, crackling energy that they could have been playing the Albert Hall. 

Shellshock! celebrated its 20th anniversary year this year, and has recently elected new exec into its committee. If tonight’s performance is anything to go by, then its future is in the safest of hands.

By Patrick O’Connell

Photo Credits: Shellshock!