ShakeItUp: the Improvised Shakespeare Show does exactly what it sets out to do. Using audience suggestions to decide on a genre, setting and title character, the group of actors create an original play in the style of Shakespeare, following the usual improvisation rules of accepting whatever challenges are thrown at them and incorporating the new elements into the plot.
The Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar is an ideal venue for this production, the auditorium is small enough to make it easy for the audience to shout out prompts and feel involved in the show. Before the start of the show, one of the cast members goes around the bar handing out Shakespeare-style line prompts for the audience to fill in. At the beginning of the show, each cast member takes a handful of prompts to take out whenever they struggle for a response. This takes the show into new and unexpected directions. The less appropriate for Shakespeare the line is, the more ridiculous the play gets.
The cast is small but they are all very versatile and take on a variety of roles. The plot that gets created gets more and more complicated as it goes along, making it more impressive that they manage to keep track of all of the twists that they include. They have no props or costume changes to help distinguish each character but they still manage to help the audience understand the different scenes and roles using only their voices and body language.
The most impressive aspect, which makes the show stand out from other improv performances, is how they maintain the Shakespearean elements throughout. They use the typical speech styles that you would find in a Shakespeare play, even when the subject matter becomes much more modern. The highlight is when they add in rhyming couplets, completely improvised, that fit into the story. It really gives the impression of an authentic, if strange, work of Shakespeare.
There are two musicians that accompany the actors, providing sound effects and background music for the various scenes. They fit in so well that you almost forget they are there, and despite the improvisation the timing is great and the music fits as well as any pre-written soundtrack. They also provide music for the improvised songs that make up part of the play, often prompted by one of the actors forcing someone to sing with a line like ‘why don’t you tell us about that, in song?’. Although the songs follow a set format and tune, it is still entertaining, both when they manage to fit a very creative line perfectly into the song, and when they struggle and can’t make it work.
Obviously, this show will be a different experience every time it is performed. It is definitely reliant on the audience being ready and willing to participate, and the actors do a great job of warming up the crowd before the show to make everyone feel more comfortable with shouting out suggestions when needed. The cast are clearly passionate about what they do, and in the case of the most recent performance, were very excited to be able to try out a history, a genre that had never been chosen for them before. Their enthusiasm is what makes the show stand out, they seem to truly enjoy the performance so the audience does too.