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By The Improvisors
Quality costume drama – only funnier.
An aristocratic English family and their servants face the challenges of life in the early twentieth century. A cast of Wellington’s top improv comedians face the challenge of making up a brand new episode every night. We supply the characters, you supply the key plot ingredients and the result is costume drama as you’ve never seen it before. Love, laughter, passion and a wide range of hats!
MEET THE TWATINGTONS!
Reviewed by Lori Leigh, 4 Aug 2015
It’s a favourite among improv performers and their audiences, to take a literary, theatre, film, or television drama and present a new format or long-form improvised show based on the style. Celebrating their Silver Jubilee this year, the Improvisors have chosen to parody British period drama, exploring the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants, in DOWNTON AdLib—obviously a play on Downton Abbey but the show is also taking cues from programmes such as Upstairs Downstairs.
We are greeted by the performers in the lobby dressed in period attire: suits, furs, and white aprons. Once ushered inside the theatre, Maisy (Deana Elvins), the family maid, introduces us to the Twatingtons of Twatford and piques our interest in “the things” she’s seen in the household in a typical lower class gossipy manner. She asks us to excuse her “pan lower class” accent which provides a great deal of humour and almost excuses the muddle of accents that all the actors adopt throughout the show.
As with most improvised formats, our hostess, Maisy, asks the audience for information to supply the content of tonight’s performance: an issue you might face at work, a charity or cause, and finally an object. First up, someone yells “sexual harassment”. Maisy laughs and immediately accepts the suggestion without comment or response. I immediately turn off to the show and this reaction is confirmed throughout with the distasteful treatment of an issue that has historically caused a lot of pain to women (and men). I don’t go to the theatre for this. I expect much more from these artists. I’m disappointed that I expect a fun night at the theatre and end up with a “very middle class” (i.e. in poor taste) – to use Downton Abbey words – representation of an important issue.
The charity given is the “SPCA” and the object is a “cell phone” to which Maisy cleverly responds, “By this, I think you mean telephone.” (I note that here, as opposed to earlier, the improviser can easily handle the potentially problematic ask-for.)
From here, the episode begins with a cast of four male actors: Ian Harcourt, Simon Haren, Jimmy O’Donnovan, and Jonathan Price; and two females: Deana Elvins and Julie O’Brien. All of them play multiple characters in the drama.
Tonight’s convoluted plot shows Ernest (Jimmy O’Donnovan) attempting to run the estate in the absence of the elusive Lord Twatington with advice from his grandmother, the Lady Grandmaam (Ian Harcourt in drag) and his aunt Virginia (Deana Elvins). Among Ernest’s blunders are installing a telephone in every room in the manor, consequently bringing the estate to the brink of bankruptcy with a tremendous power bill, and turning Twatington into cat shelter for 70 something stray cats to escape the rainy weather. (The use of cats of course provides numerous “pussy” references.)
Downstairs, head butler Epsom (Jonathan Price) is jailed for murdering the family cat Mittens (and/or stealing money – it’s unclear) and carries on an illicit liaison with Pamela Twatington (Julie O’Brien). All of this eventually ends in the creation of a cat-horse monster, constructed in a Frankenstein-like attempt to resurrect cats from the dead, that terrorises the estate but ultimately winds up as a hunting trophy upon Lord Twatington’s return.
Despite its absurdity, the aristocracy-hating cat-horse monster named Satan is actually very funny, and they even manage to weave in a Gareth Morgan reference.
The humour excels, however, when the content comes from the genre /style itself such as Ian Harcourt’s impersonation of the matriarch Lady Grandaam – very Maggie Smith – or the listing of the numerous rooms in the house (parlour, library, drawing room, late afternoonish room etc. . . .). To this end, watching the characters struggling with new technology is also a treat. The highlight of this is Simon Haren’s series of repeated prank calls to the house on the new telephones as the Lord Twatington, Ignatious the Priest, the King, the Kaiser, and even Woodrow Wilson.
Craft-wise, I wish for a deeper exploration and engagement with the genre. No sense of world – essential for period drama – is evoked. Though the actors are having fun (always a plus), they often aren’t listening to one another, dropping characters, and talking over each other. There is not a great sense of connected ensemble: essential for sustaining improvisation of this length.
Despite this, Jonathan Price works hard at clarity and holds many of the plot-threads together. He is the most successful at playing several roles effectively by distinguishable characterisation and committing to his points-of-view/motivations. His mime is also very good, which is important in a genre that is so much about place and environment.
Finally, I really enjoy Cam Crawford’s skilful music: the theme tune, the telephone rings, and all the orchestration which masterfully punctuate the underlying drama.
DOWNTON Adlib runs an hour and thirty minutes including a ten-minute interval with a second round of audience suggestions to inspire the final half. It runs for eight more shows with a Christmas special (which is a really nice idea). Many of the audience seemed to be having a jolly time, and no doubt will return to see how the rest of the season plays out.
Player Upstairs Character | Downstairs Character
Deana Elvins: Lady Virginia Simpleton | Maisie
Kenny King: Lord Nigel Twattington | Grumbles
Ian Harcourt: The Dowager Countess
Julie O’Brien: Lady Pamela Twattington | Daisy + Mrs McGee + journalist from The Women’s Monthly
Jimmy O’Donovan: Lord Earnest Twattington
Jonathan Price: Epsom
Simon Haren Reverend Ignatius | Smythe + Christopher from the Tax Department
Grace Bently: ……………………………………………….| Dorothy
Musician – Cam Crawford
Lighting – Uther Dean