A Scandal in Bloomsbury – An Improv Murder Mystery

The Blank Slates, the improv branch of the UCL Comedy Club tree, don’t wait around to make a joke or, it seems, book a stage from which to make that joke. Their last show was in December, at the Etcetera Theatre. Only two months later, and they’re back with another; this time, at the Camden People’s Theatre. But their prevalence on the comedy scene does not seem to tire their audience; perhaps it helps that improvised material never gets old. As such, they’re greeted by a vivacious audience that, tonight, will respond like a fandom; rooting for each one-liner, both on-stage kisses (commitment to character was, it seems, unwavering) and, in the finale, the condemnation of all three murder suspects. 

The show follows a classic improv paradigm: the murder mystery. A suited host, Liam Barrett, enters. Sitting behind his piano, where he will add melodramatic melodies (and ringtones) to the prevailing events, he sets a comfortable tone that eases the audience into a cosy evening. Introductions had, Detective Inspector Maggie Jones, played by Hannah Pennauer, to which the successful direction of the show is owed credit, takes to centre stage, presenting three potential murder suspects and a victim. The audience is encouraged to suggest a name, murder weapon and occupation for each murder suspect and, then, the actors (including two minor characters not yet onstage) play out scenes which surmount to a trio of motives.

The first motive took surprisingly long to conclude – but the journey was wondrous; the latter two were arrived at more efficiently – but this did not necessarily make for the better journey. The best motive was formed in the footpath of Billy the Gardner, whose suspected murder weapon was a lawnmower (ingenuity credit: the loud audience member in the back row). Billy the Gardner undergoes a surprising transformation from Mr. Nice Guy to Mr. Outright Misogynist. He impresses his lover-to-be Daisy with a pleasant charm, then, this being improv, spirals into a disingenuous one-night stand (more specifically, he tries to seduce a spinster, to steal a topiary dinosaur-sized dinosaur…for the Little Whittington Town Festival). Here, Andy Brown, the actor playing Billy, displays his talent for timing. His lover, played by William Jefferies, is outstanding; casting himself as the hysterical northern mother (his wit is one of the cast’s best assets). 

Outstanding moments were, however, shared amongst the cast. The ever-confident Eleanor Dickinson, in her role as Debby the Zoo-Keeper, returns from an animal cage with the stifling line “fucking orangutans having an orgy again” (a challenge of stage direction sensibly shied away from by minor characters Nat Abell and Jack Sutton). Sutton as a chain-smoking child is a consistent delight; his revelation to the audience, that he is doubly as tall as his on-stage parents assume, was a brilliant use of the stage and thoroughly endeared the audience. Disappointingly, his time, and that of Abell, who had delightful moments herself (most notably: as a strip club customer-cum-therapist), was limited – the product of character rotation across the show’s run. An honourable mention should be given to Danya Baryshnikov, who braved the role of Lucy the Stripper; his performance here, and across his other roles, was that of a consummate professional.

Watching the cast work out material in real-time is truly exciting. There is an empathy drawn out from the audience by each cast member. Though narrative isn’t always fluid, there are seldom moments wherein the audience is neither encouraging nor enjoying their efforts. This makes for an altogether pleasant evening. That it cannot be repeated again is part of the loss and the magic.

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