Of all the weird and wonderful guises under which improv comedy can be presented, a murder mystery sounds like a brilliant idea – we all love a game of Cluedo, and with the unpredictability of improvisation I was hoping for a plot as wacky and entertaining as an episode of Midsomer Murders. Sadly, while The Murderettes promise killer comedy, it’s the troupe themselves that die a rather painful death on stage.
The first half of the show consists of some traditional improv games: ‘Expert’, ‘Story, Story, Die’ and ‘Puppets’ to name but a few, all designed to get both the performers and audience warmed up. Yet the show falters from the off, as its structure and use of audience participation hinders rather than helps the troupe to get the crowd on side. For those who haven’t seen improv before, the performers give very little guidance; it’s not surprising that the audience offer up few suggestions, and from this flat start the atmosphere never picks up.
Even the best improvisers have a plan – certain set pieces or structures that provide a solid base for their material – but this is clearly what The Murderettes are lacking. They flounder without a sense of direction for much of the performance, and rely too much on audience participation to raise laughs. To do this, you need to have confidence that you are still the funniest person on the stage: it’s always embarrassing when the audience member gets the biggest laugh of the night… Thom Tween is the most energetic of the bunch and valiantly attempts to keep a sense of fun and hilarity, but the awkwardness of an unimpressed audience is already apparent.
The second half is where the murder mystery element kicks in, as the four performers construct a tale of death and intrigue. Here they all but abandon the idea of audience suggestions when they need it most: we choose a couple of emotions, a setting, and then sit back and watch the rest unfold. The whole thing quickly becomes incredibly stilted, and the humour is too often very ordinary and uninspired. Norm, the quirkiest of the bunch, throws in curveballs that should enliven a scene; yet his ideas are not carried by the rest of the troupe, who sometimes attempt to cut them off rather than build on the comedy. Founder and director Peter Edwards has the potential to provide deadpan humour, but his unimaginative approach begins to grate: if a manic laugh isn’t funny the first time, it certainly won’t be the fifth or tenth time.
There is an awkward sense of bumbling desperation as the performers weave their tale of feuding rappers, involving Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the world’s greatest ever iPhone. A running joke about the use of Siri has promise, but isn’t spun out to its full potential, while the final showdown involving a rap battle also picks up the energy somewhat – but it’s all too little too late.
The Murderettes have hit on what could be a great concept: themed improv can be a huge success, as proved by groups such as Austentatious and Showstoppers, but this troupe needs far more structure, slicker delivery and a sharper comedic edge to reach those heights.
The Murderettes – Murder Mystery Comedy is playing regularly at the Phoenix Artist Club throughout October and November. For more information and tickets, see The Murderettes website.