Banana. Spatula. Improv exists via audience suggestions, and sometimes audiences aren’t very imaginative. Still, it was a surprise to see a Tuesday night audience at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn transmogrify into an Edinburgh Fringe midnight audience. In came the predictable shouts for strippers, nuns, and sex dungeons.
But like all good improvisation groups, Michelle, a Hoopla Impro house team performing as part of the Camden Fringe, don’t take you where you thought you’d necessarily go. But they definitely take you to where you need to be.
Michelle’s setting was a hotel. We were introduced to our world for the next hour by a hunchbacked, perma-smoking impresario played by Michal Banai. She – he – was to be our host and guide, and as I sat wishing I’d shouted out “Guardian Journalist” as a character to compete with all the nuns and strippers, the first scene was underway.
Very quickly our brains were coming to terms with so many characters: a lion tamer with a lackadaisical approach to cage security. A chef who had invented whole new delicacy (cheese sausages). An Irish woman of Jesus suffering a crisis of faith. A sex dungeon undergoing a health and safety inspection. Cabaret performers stumbling into the wrong scenes, backwards, their movement in practice for a finale that was never to come.
It was very quickly apparent that we were in the hands of artists. It would be very easy, with the suggestions provided, to head towards the lowest common denominator, like a reality tv executive with a pig and a c-list celebrity.
But Hotel Michelle was filled with both funny and sympathetic characters, from Kate Heward’s conflicted nun to Melissa Parker’s deadpan security guard. It crystallised into a real and uncertain world, in which boring registrars derail the renewing of vows, stag dos are thwarted by existential crises, and people chained to walls are tortured, but psychologically.
One important craft in improv, much as in life, is knowing when things have come to an end. And Hotel Michelle judged scenes to perfection, always ending at the most satisfying point, always referencing back to the most enjoyable riffs, and always knowing when to push things, because rules, like plates at a Greek party, are there to be broken.
**** out of *****
Hotel Michelle are performing at the Camden Fringe on 27th August 2021. Tickets: here.
 As I was with one, so it could have been interesting.