The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
As part of our Edinburgh Fringe coverage, Playbill is seeing a whole lotta shows—and we're sharing which ones you absolutely must see if you're only at the Fringe for a short amount of time. Consider these Playbill Picks a friendly, opinionated guide as you try to choose a show at the festival.
Playbill strives to keep its audience of devoted theatre fans up to date on the latest in theatre, and it doesn't get any more current than a musical being written right in front of you. That's the conceit of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, which features a handful of singing comedian performers riffing a brand new musical based on whatever suggestions the audience has to offer at that performance. The show sold out 11 earlier runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and won a 2016 Olivier Award for a stint in London's West End—and there's a reason this one is such a consistent audience favorite.
When Playbill attended a recent performance, audience volunteers suggested songs in the style of Les Misérables, Guys & Dolls, Six, and Legally Blonde. For the setting, an English hedge maze, which inspired the punny title The Hedge of Reason, both also audience suggestions.
The program lists 19 actors in the company, each eligible to shuffle into any number of the show's 25 performances scheduled at this year's Fringe Festival. The performance Playbill attended featured show creators and co-directors Dylan Emery and Adam Meggido (who also directed Broadway's Peter Pan Goes Wrong), along with Jonathan Ainscough, Ruth Bratt, Justin Brett, Andrew Pugsley (who also serves as associate artistic director), and Lauren Shearing.
The full ensemble was pretty spectacular, equally as hilarious in improvised scene work as they were in improvised songs, whether leading from center stage or providing a back-up dream ballet. These performers are mostly comedians first, but their singing voices were not too shabby either. Several songs featured the full ensemble somehow breaking into perfectly synchronized, unrehearsed choral harmonies.
The group has structured the evening so that a producer (Emery at our performance) can pause a scene and add new plot points if the scene needs new direction. Most of the time, this plays out as pranks on the other company members. At one point, a cast member strangely mentioned the spurious "paradox of the drunk man at the bar." Emery took the opportunity to cut in and stipulate that Shearing's character fully explain the paradox. Without missing a beat, Shearing replied, "Ah yes, you mean the famous paradox of the one drunk man at the bar with 10 women over 50 behind him and none of them ever get served." The audience roared.
Do these improvised musicals offer a complex, dramaturgically-sound plot? Not so much. But by the end of the show, we'd seen that Hedge of Reason premise (if you can call it that) lead to characters falling in love, secret identities being revealed, attacks from a menacing hedge monster, and even a troubling descent into insanity.
As for the songs, that was no trouble for the performance's three-member band, which was ready to go with music in the style of any composer or musical in the canon. We got lyrics like "Me for you and you for me, I love you as far as I can see." Sondheim that ain't—but then again, we'd be lying if we said we hadn't heard worse in some fully rehearsed and produced musicals that will remain unnamed. And some of those weren't even aiming to be funny!
Improv can be hilarious, but it can also be cringey and boring. Luckily, Showstoppers! is firmly in the former camp. If you're a fan of improv, you're likely to love this show. If you love musical theatre, you're likely to really love this show, a theatre nerd's dream. The off-the-cuff plotting and songwriting simultaneously lampoons and pays loving tribute to our favorite musicals and all of their conventions, hackneyed or otherwise. Most importantly, it's just a really good laugh.
Showstoppers! The Improvised Musical is playing through August 27 at The Grand at Pleasance Courtyard. If you can't get to the Festival, there are two filmed performances from earlier Festival engagements available on demand at ShowstopperTheMusical.com.