Paul Merton has been at the forefront of the UK improvisation scene across four decades. Having appeared in the first ever episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? on Channel 4 in 1988, and as a founder member of the legendary Comedy Store Players, he went on to create Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, who have starred at several Edinburgh Fringes and taken their adlibbing ways on tour across Britain to great acclaim.
The longstanding line-up of Paul, Mike McShane, Suki Webster, Richard Vranch and Lee Simpson, has been added to in the shape of keyboard player Kirsty Newton. As the group visit Tunbridge Wells as part of their national tour, Paul discusses the explosion of new improvisation acts, the pleasures of getting around the country on a luxury bus, and whether any preparation is possible for an improvised show.
What would you say are the main differences between putting together a written show and performing a show that’s entirely improvised?
The difference between this and a written show is that the latter takes a lot of pre-thought and hard work, and if you’ve got a bit that doesn’t work, you think ‘how am I going to fix that?’ With impro, there are no bits to worry about because they don’t exist yet. In written pieces, if there’s a very funny line that always gets a big laugh you’ve got to try and get that same laugh every night while making it sound like you’ve never said it before, so there are different sets of challenges.
Is there any kind of preparation you can do before you go on stage?
For me, the preparation is having done it for 30 years. That loosens you a bit and it reminds us when we’re playing a larger venue to not talk so quickly at first. Don’t be slow but be clear. Be pacy but not too quick.
Do you ever analyse what’s happened during an Impro Chums show or is it a case of once it’s done, you just forget about it?
The danger with doing the same games every time is that you can fall into a pattern about how you play them and you want to avoid that as much as possible. On tour, we mix up which games we do and who’s doing which games. Because it’s not something you have to remember, then you just don’t. You don’t even send a conscious command of ‘brain-wipe-delete’. It all just goes.
What are the pros and cons of touring?
Having a bus means that we can get back to London and go to sleep in your own bed, so that saves on hotel bills. When you’re doing all these dates, you want to cut down on stress as much as possible, such as constantly waking up in hotel rooms and wondering what city you’re in and really missing home. So if you can get home, even if it’s two or three in the morning, it’s still more preferable to hotel rooms.
What are the particular musical challenges to the show?
The audience love the musical bits and when Mike and Suki are singing in film and theatre styles and there’s a musical number or Gilbert & Sullivan, the audience love it. It’s a real crowd-pleasing element. To be able to play music is an ability and a gift that a lot of people don’t have and they admire it even more than just the verbal stuff: the lyrics and the tune just happen and it sounds like the showstopper of the year!
What do you enjoy about coming to Tunbridge Wells?
I’m really looking forward to playing the Assembly Hall. We always have a great time there. Ian Hislop has been known to come along to see the show on occasion – he’s always the one who starts the heckling!
Paul Merton brings his Impro Chums to the Assembly Hall on Monday (April 8) at 8pm.
Tickets cost £25.75. To book visit www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk