‘Expecting the unexpected is the only approach for Shellshock!
If an outsider had walked into Shellshock!’s performance of Hysterical Artefacts at any given moment, they would have been baffled, with no clue as to what was going on; “Barricade the city with plates” and “I’m just a normal seagull… surprise, I’m Zeus!” are not sentences you would expect to hear in a traditional play after all. However, this is the beauty of improvised comedy. Co-directed by Asare Marriott-Semper and Nemo Royle (originally co-produced by Ben Bradley and Em Kelly), and performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival earlier this year, Hysterical Artefacts allows the audience to provide a stimulus for the show based on a historical period (in this case classical Greece) and an object (on this occasion an iPhone). The entire show is improvised based on these elements, allowing the show to go in any possible direction. Entering the performance, it is impossible to predict what will happen! Expecting the unexpected is the only approach for Shellshock!
From the get-go, the cast’s ability to use props to create characters and scenes was impressive. This often began with the “museum curator” – played by Asare – introducing a scene. Asare played an integral role in “warming the audience up” and livening the atmosphere from the very beginning by demanding audience participation. All improvisers were dressed in basic black clothes and there was no set except for a chair. Although I was initially unsure of how this would work, this allowed the cast to spontaneously create scenes, such as a marketplace or a classroom, and markedly to create diverse and memorable characters, such as the addition of a woolly hat to indicate becoming a child, or a trilby hat to create a Greek God. This was emphasised by the effective use of physicality and voice. One of my favourite moments was watching Trix perform a scene of two characters on her own by changing hat and accent. More of my favourite moments were Gabriel’s use of vocal tonality to establish eccentricity and Ben’s transformation from a poor boy to a market-seller. In fact everyone did this brilliantly, forming many unique characters with differing voices and stances. As an audience member, this had me invested in characters and plot that didn’t even exist yet.
It must also be applauded that the cast – especially Nemo and Ben – very effectively used the chair to make the most of the performance space and create a different dynamic in what would otherwise be a very simple venue. This varied the levels and proxemics, highlighting various power dynamics and keeping the audience on their toes. Moreover, the use of simple lighting and sound (involving an opening/closing theme), whilst not always perfect, was effective in transforming a TLC classroom into a performance space, creating a more professional yet relaxed environment.
An obvious issue with improvisation is the lack of a prepared script; the fact that everything is being performed for the very first time without conventional rehearsal. Ben described the rehearsal process as “like for a football match” – involving drills and exercises rather than typical directing. At times this unpreparedness did become evident through momentary breaks of character, though this only enhanced the comedy, involving the audience even more by breaking the fourth wall with facial expressions. This had us rooting for the improvisers rather than judging them; it felt like a game that we were participating in. Therefore, whilst transitions into characters and dialogue could have been smoother, this made the characters/cast more amiable. It must also be appreciated that improvisation is something not many people can pull off, let alone try. Consequently, Hysterical Artefacts should be appreciated in many ways, despite minor flaws. I particularly enjoyed the circular structure that the directors employed to create an outline for the play, opening with a tableau and finding their way back to that same tableau at the end of the performance, very cleverly tying the play together.
This lack of prepared script was also an opportunity for this talented cast to take the play in any direction – no matter how peculiar or random – and the more absurd it became, the more fun it was. The play was brimming with puns which recurred in almost every scene, primarily based on the juxtaposition of classical Greece and mobile phones – notably the characters of “Steveus Jobus” and “Phone-us” which constantly had the audience in giggles. Even when the jokes were old, they became funnier with repetition. Nemo must be commended for their comedic portrayal of Zeus, bouncing off the earlier theme of seagulls and doors (again, bizarre to an outsider) which became a recurring joke, emphasised further by the cohesive cast at the side constantly being prepared to provide vocal sound effects. The play felt like a massive inside joke that the audience was completely in on.
Shellshock! ultimately shell-shocked me with their quick-witted, fast-paced and clever improvisation. Their Hysterical Artefacts successfully brought a small audience into literal hysterics. The small cast of Asare Marriott-Semper, Nemo Royle, Ben Bradley, Gabriel D’Souza, Josh Ball, and Trix Young, as well as Katie Scott (production manager), did an excellent job of creating a unique and comical show. Even for someone who wouldn’t usually opt for improvised comedy, Shellshock! is a company worth checking out in the future and I look forward to seeing what else they have in store.
By Emily Sanderson
Shellshock! will have improv workshops 8pm every Tuesday in ER147 and shows 19:30 on Sundays of weeks 3, 6 and 9.