Wednesday, July 6

Showstopper! The (Socially Distanced) Improvised Musical: ‘The Balloon Where It Happens’

Tonight, I watched a premiere of a new musical about two couples who travel back in time when their hot air balloon is caught in a freak thunderstorm during a 30th wedding anniversary celebration. This is a musical about recognising what you have, and about living your best life. With catchy songs based on the musical styles of Hamilton, The Boy Friend, Les Misérables and even the Muppets, I discovered just what happens when you have the chance to change your past.

And who wrote this new work? Well, we did! We – the audience that is.

The Showstoppers have been wowing people with their genius since 2008, improvising a brand-new musical at every performance based on suggestions provided live by their audiences for settings, musical styles and plot twists. I’ve been intending to see this troupe live for years, but somehow, I never seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and then just like everyone else, COVID-19 forced the company out of the theatre. However, like many creatives, the Showstoppers have been working hard to overcome the challenges presented by this global pandemic in order to give audiences access to their work in other ways, and this is their second, fully live virtual offering.


Photo Hugo Glendinning

Improvisational theatre is a difficult art, and improvising a musical is even harder. However, separate the cast from one another by 2+ metres and surround them by plastic screens to ensure their safety, and then separate them from the band by yet more screens and yet more distance, and the Showstoppers themselves admit that this is an exciting new challenge. Sharing their thoughts on their new socially distant format in a backstage video shown during the interval, the performers talked about how the physical distance between them, although they are now at least able to be in the same room, has meant the loss of many of their tried-and-tested cues and signals, which only makes me more impressed by what they managed to achieve this evening. I honestly don’t know where I would start if I had to create a plot and lyrics to fit ever changing musical patterns on the spot!

This evening’s performers – Ruth Bratt, Justin Brett, Pippa Evans and Adam Meggido, with music from Duncan Walsh Atkins and Alex Atty – were astounding. Despite a couple of slip ups with the character names and a rather fluid time period that accidentally stretched from the opening of Macy’s department store in the 1850s to the era of Donald Trump, the Showstoppers demonstrated the best of theatre: creativity, imagination and resilience. Playing multiple roles, and showing off their vocal versatility and acting talent, they carried us along on their unexpected journey, before finally reaching a surprisingly poignant and timely conclusion: “My happiness will see me through”.

As the performance was filmed entirely live, with audience suggestions being made in the fast-moving comment box, credit must also be given to the technical video and sound crew who have created a socially distanced setup that works, and works well; and to Andrew Pugsley for guiding everyone through the performance so seamlessly.

This particular performance, entitled ‘The Balloon Where It Happens’, will be available to watch on demand until Sunday 30th August, and you can get your tickets from https://showstopperthemusical.com/ with the promise of more online productions to come. Keep an eye out on their website and social media pages for announcements. The Showstoppers will also be performing live and in person at the Turbine Theatre – Turbine on the Jetty on Thursday 17th September, and tickets are available from https://www.theturbinetheatre.com/

The Showstoppers are a wonderful example of creativity overcoming adversity in the current climate, and their willingness to adapt and evolve to the current circumstances in order to present their craft fills me with hope for the future.

Reviewer: Jo Tillotson

Reviewed: 28th August 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★

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