A formidable commercial machine? Maybe. But Murder She Didn’t Write is a well-oiled one, running like clockwork and showcasing a level of improv skill which is really quite remarkable.
I have to admit I expected – perhaps even wanted – to dislike Murder She Didn’t Write. I’ll put it down to a combination of the ridiculously extensive queue (it took about 12 minutes to locate the end of it), the knowledge that this commercial production has been attracting just-as-lengthy ones for well over 5 years, the shows’ undeniable similarities to Austentatious (which I, rightly or wrongly, associate with rather more grassroots beginnings – knowing it started its life on the Free Fringe) and the poor view Pleasance Beyond seats seem to offer (the venue needs to start staggering those seats, and to up the incline, as it’s a real strain to see even the tops of actors heads at times).
The fact of the matter, though, is the level of improv skill on display is really quite remarkable. I’d be exaggerating to say every attempt at humour had me howling with laughter – but merely watching how well-rehearsed and seasoned (well beyond their years) the Murder She Didn’t Write troupe are is mesmerisingly impressive – and worth the sweaty seating arrangement.
It’s not particularly difficult, whilst watching, to form an idea of what the ‘New Performers Induction Guidelines’ probably look like. The company’s approach to proceedings – scene structuring, key moments when ‘clues’ are planted and the ‘confrontations’ take place, etc – follows a clear, pretty transparent formula. But the presence of such a formula (and the fact it’s not tricky to decode) is not a criticism; it’s the opposite. It’s an impressively honed framework or recipe (which could have only come from years and years of trial and error and refinement), upon which the troupe can now pretty much guarantee any audience input – of which there is, boldly, not much – will result in success.
Dressed in distinct bold colours (transforming each into a living and breathing Cluedo character), the rotating cast are far more receptive to each other’s (often subtle) ‘offers’ than any other improv troupe I’ve seen at the Fringe. Each – in turn – demonstrates wit and superhuman telepathy over the 60-minute running time. I’ve no idea how long they’ve been working as one unit, but it feels like years; the degree to which they can, and do, preempt each others decisions and future actions (and thus provide suitable set-ups) is a sight worth seeing.
The female performers, at the afternoon I attended, were the ones to really excel though (unfortunately no cast list seemed to be available or I’d be using exact names). Both in terms of wry characterisation (the girl in the picture above stole the show based on her voice alone), but the girls – unsurprisingly perhaps – tended to be better listeners (both to audience reaction, and more importantly often, the ways others were steering scenes).
It’s an intriguing decision to keep the cast off-stage whilst the audience make the key decisions; the fact the performers are out of sight obviously means they could be conferring and essentially planning out a rough structure – even in the absence of not yet knowing who will take the role of victim and infiltrator. I assume this 2-minute planning time (whilst the narrator makes slightly trite jokes…don’t be put off by the first 5 minutes, it gets better when the improv begins!) is a key component to their winning formula. If not though, it should be scrapped because it’s detrimental to the belief it really is spontaneous improv. There’s always something impressive about the Showstoppers cast – for example – being constantly onstage, receiving audience inputs and jumping into a scene without so much as a side-look at each other. I understand it might be a trade-off working taking though, especially if it drastically improves the quality of the (faux-)drama.
All in all though, Murder She Didn’t Write‘s energetic and accomplished cast elevate the (perhaps not hugely original) format above and beyond what you might expect. It’s a great, accessible and reliable introduction to the world of comedy improv – and, thanks to their finely honed approach and structure – you can be pretty confident you won’t experience a dud night.