I only have to hear the phrase “lashings of ginger beer” and I am instantly transported back to a childhood spent reading Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five’ stories. With their work The Nearly Famous Five, Lancaster-based improvisation group We Are Improv tap into the collective nostalgia and desire to relive these quintessentially British tales. The show began with the audience suggesting that this version of the famous five should be renamed Victoria, Sarah, Felix, Aloysius and Phoebe (their toy pet dog) and that their latest adventure should be entitled ‘The Famous Five Go To Las Vegas And Lose Everything.’
Clearly masters of their craft, We Are Improv are completely unfazed by the idea of concocting a plot that sounds more like the title of one of The Hangover films than a Blyton tale. Aside from being peppered with a few surreal moments (like when the older children attempt to sell Aloysius to a group of Americans, in order to earn enough money to be able to return home) The Nearly Famous Five is highly entertaining.
From the opening scene, during which the quintet are preparing to go on one of their renowned picnics, it is apparent that the cast have spent a great deal of time perfecting their portrayal of these iconic characters. Their wide-eyed smiles, sweeping gender stereotypes and overtly polite manner are all undoubtedly evocative of the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ world that Blyton created. Such firm and recognisable characterisation provides a strong foundation for the piece. Consequently, even when the ‘children’ (who I must stress are all played convincingly by adults) are placed in unlikely scenarios such as a casino, their well-established characters facilitate performances that are still within the realms of possibility.
Aside from occasionally fluffing “Aloysius” – one of the names that the audience had suggested – We Are Improv’s execution is slick and brimming with fast-paced wit. Watching The Nearly Famous Five can be likened to seeing a live recording of Whose Line Is It Anyway? The true charm of the piece is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The troupe strive to play homage to the original ‘Famous Five’ adventures by accentuating the underlining humour within the texts, and from the rapturous applause it’s safe to say that they succeeded in doing so.
I am keen to see what We Are Improv do next, and I think with such well-honed improvisational skills they have the potential to take the interactive element of their work to tremendous heights.
The Nearly Famous Five was performed as part of the IMPROFEST at the Tristan Bates Theatre on 23 March. For future tour dates please visit the We Are Improv website.