‘If you’re going to commit a wine crime, you could end up behind bars.’
Confession: Before I started writing this piece, I was looking at ticket prices for their next show.
I have very little to say. The audience was nearly full and couldn’t stop laughing. The enthusiasm of those sitting behind me was such that I got lightly sprayed with red wine. My notebook, backpack and sleeve were also brought into this immersive portion of the experience. It’s hysterical theatre.
‘Brave, clever, good looking… Jerkins is none of these things.’
Degrees of Error are an improvised theatre company based in Bristol. In “Murder She Didn’t Write”, they bring us a spectacularly mal-planned murder mystery…even they don’t know exactly how the story will end. We, the audience, determine major plot points.
The ‘game-master’, if you will, Stephen Clements, is our host and inspector, helping to sculpt the show into a legible story. Welcoming us into the atmosphere, folding us into the mystery, he asks the right questions and provides a unified picture. Audience responses are curated to find the most admissible and playable, and he keeps the players on track to hit key moments.
With a launch of his detective hat into the audience, he nominates a ‘Jerkins’, who will help fashion the event, victim, murderer… and murder weapon. On this occasion, we were at a wine tasting, the victim was an Australian, and the murder weapon was a fluorescent mallet. ‘Jerkins’, probably Spanish, had never heard of the word ‘mallet’ before and therefore thought it the most productive of audience-flung suggestions. Honorable mentions for ‘circumcision’ as the event, and ‘bag of potatoes’ as the unusual object of significance.
‘Ah, a gravel garden. Crunch.’
Improvisation is spontaneous creation; it, like life, evolves through openness, boldness and affirmation. Degrees works generously as an ensemble, fulfilling one of the core skills necessary for excellent improvisation. Others include: unselfconsciousness; an understanding of structure; listening and always saying yes.
From what I can gather, there is a basic structure worked out in advance; archetypal characters, power relationships and beats. From this place of clarity, one can move into unexpected circumstances with freedom to create. One knows that one must get from Point A to Point B as an ingenue or a matron; it’s the how which is the fun part.
‘Cut down in the prime of what Australian people would probably call a life.’
Lizzy Skrzypiec and Peter Baker were particularly striking in their wit, marrying context with character and the ever-embellishing story. Even founding member Clements had to stifle the occasional guffaw, delighting in pausing the piece to tweak newfound absurdity even further. It is his job, you see, to eke out potential in shorter vignettes. And then he had to hold the tears back with his trench coat.
The risk the performers are taking combined with the farcical impossibility of certain situations are what provoke the greatest reaction. They’ll speak, to realise their folly, but be unable to turn back. In improvisation, there is only moving forward. For instance:
’You’ve seen the way he looks at me.’
‘I have… with both eyes facing forward… [the realisation hits actress Skrzypiec]…I’ve only seen him from the side or behind.’
But then sometimes, the hilarity is born from genius:
‘Then I had an idea. We could frame the foreigner… That’s what we British do.’
‘Keep those tears in your eyes, we don’t want salty wine.’
A few dips in energy is expected; someone is a little self-conscious, nervous and forgetting to put the focus on the other person, and the disconnect of disassociation can happen. It’s like good conversation and bad conversation, people. But overall, this is a pretty terrific conversation.
This may be one of the more unrefined reviews I’ve never minded putting out there before.
Simply, I’ll tell anyone to go and see this show.
And now I’m telling you. Spit spot.
‘Murder She Didn’t Write’ will next be seen in London at the Leicester Square Theatre on the 29th of April. I will also be seen there.