It’s a weekend of improv here in Liverpool, so those of us who like to be amused by something a bit more inventive than the Daily Mail’s Grand National sidebar of shame should be a bit spoiled for choice.
Things kicked off tonight with the return of spontaneous theatre group Hoof!. Back, back, BACK after three years away, the be-suited cult favourites gathered an ensemble of old, new, and where-might-I-have-seen-them-before performers to create the first of two one-off evenings of finely crafted, yet manic storytelling.
Featuring Mark Smith of Hoof! founders Spike Theatre and previous collaborators Glenn Noble, Keddy ‘Caz and Britney’ Sutton, Ann Farrar of Rejects Revenge and Joff Chafer, joining the fun for the first time were Tmesis Theatre’s Elinor Randle and John Garfield-Roberts.
Unlike the quick wit and verbal sparring to be found in other types of improvised comedy, Hoof’s work is very much grounded in clowning and physical theatre – and the players literally set the scene themselves. The show develops as small sketches that at their strongest build and interweave seemingly effortlessly into a bigger story. With live musicians on stage to respond to the action and even encourage a bit of an ensemble singalong, it creates a vivid world of imagination for the audience to buy in to. There is much less breaking character or corpsing than might be expected, and it’s testament to the performers that all seemed keen to swerve the cheap or obvious laughs that can bring and focus on fleshing out surreal short plays.
An early scene, a scenario in which it transpired Sutton had been invited to become the first female Freemason, was enhanced as the other performers became armchairs, a tiger rug and even a hanging portrait around her to create an ostentatious surround. In the second act when action switched to the Wild West, canyons and desert creatures were imagined.
Each member of the highly likeable ensemble brought their own strengths to the table. Randle, best known for her physical theatre performances, used that for a visual advantage, while Garfield-Roberts’s friendly camp style was a lovely addition. Smith proved a natural leader of the group, and although only joining in the action in the second act on this occasion he took the lead in using the only prop allowed – the identical suit and tie combo – to take things off in new directions. All made it look easy and rose to the challenge with style, working well as a team to create a mind-bogglingly entertaining mix (this includes musicians Simon James and Tom Wilson, and lighting techs Phil Saunders and Julie Kearney).
A cobra with a penchant for gossip columns, the perils of a knitted adventure playground and the woes of a bell end (erm… literally) were among some of the scenarios that came out of tonight’s show, and tomorrow they will start all over again to create something completely different. It’s clever, it’s artistic and it’s wonderful fun – and hopefully this won’t be the last the world sees of Hoof!.