On The Fly have chosen to use the well-loved (and conveniently out of copyright) characters from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as the basis for their latest improvisational offering. The five performances of the run are all structured around a different plot, so that each show is guaranteed to be unique.
On an appropriately adaptable yet well-adorned stage (the lamppost was particularly delightful), Wednesday night’s show opened with Holmes (Paul Gordon) and Watson (Eugene Suleau) witnessing the death of an unidentified woman. Back at 221b, as Mrs Hudson (Helen Keene) busied herself dusting the house, the men discussed the fact that Detective Lestrade (Aaron Broomhall) had gone missing. A seemingly unrelated (yeah, right!) case appeared in the form of a young lady, Miss Pearson (Maddy Gibbons), who pleaded with them to investigate the ill health of a friend, Lord Harris (Noah Tavor), who had started to have fits of falling. Unsurprisingly James Moriarty (Jarrad Parker) was tied up in this somehow, and Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler (Claire Bottrall) also had a part to play. In an hour and a half, the performers needed to bring all these pieces together in a coherent and entertaining story, all made up “on the fly”.
The fun of improvisation lies in the audience’s ability to appreciate the spontaneousness of the action, the way random information has been included and the quick thinking of the performers in being able to bring this all together in a coherent and fun performance. While this show is un-scripted theatre rather than Theatre Sports, with the characters and overarching storyline pre-planned to give the show a structure, some input from audience members was still sort beforehand to provide ideas for such things as locations, objects and weapons. Unfortunately, there was no information provided to the audience about which segments and details were made up entirely by the performers and which were based on these audience suggestions. It is possible that if you were one of the audience members who provided them, you may have recognised when one or two of your responses were included, but the rest of us were completely in the dark. Without this information, the joy of witnessing these suggestions being woven into the action was sadly lost.
While it’s understandable that the actual dialogue may not be polished in such a piece, what should be solid to compensate is the overall environment created for the action to take place in and the characterisations of the players. Each performer should have immersed themselves far enough into the mind of their character that they could react to any situation as their temporary alter-ego would. As a grounding for this, they should have developed an understanding of the behaviours and language of the time period in which the action is set. Unfortunately, this was not accomplished for the most part.
As Holmes, Gordon was amiable and seemed to be contributing some good ideas, however his dialogue was too stilted for him to be believable as the quick thinking, great master detective. A stand out performance was given by Suleau (maybe not surprising as he appears to be the most experienced member of the cast), who had a strong stage presence, a definite and appropriate character, and was often the one keeping the action moving with some funny lines thrown in to boot. Parker’s portrayal of Moriarty, while consistent, borrowed rather too much from that seen in the television series Sherlock and while Bottrall looked the part as Irene, with a divine hair-do, her strong Australian accent was rather jarring. Gibbons showed some promise as Miss Pearson, though the glint from an anachronistic extra piecing in her ear was very distracting.
Improvisation can be a tricky art to master, and by its nature cannot be held to the same expectations as ordinary theatre, however this is not an excuse for standards to drop. The performer never knows what they will have to work with and must be adaptable to a plethora of possibilities. This means that greater effort should be put into honing the aspects of a show that can be controlled, so that these elements will support those that are more open to failure. While further experience will no doubt help to improve the confidence, spontaneous thinking and other skills of the performers involved, a stronger focus on the overarching production would make this series of shows more enjoyable for a wider audience.