Hoping to make it five sellout years in a row, award-winning improvised comedy show Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel is returning to the Edinburgh Fringe.
The all-star cast including Cariad Lloyd (Peep Show, Murder In Successville), Joseph Morpurgo (Siblings, Drunk History) and Rachel Parris (The IT Crowd), will once again be improvising a brand new Jane Austen work before your very eyes, based upon a single suggestion.
As audience members take to their seats, they are encouraged to write the titles of imaginary Austen novels, one of which is selected, entirely at random, and immediately performed.
Presented in full period costume with live musical accompaniment, Austentatious presents an ambitious story with all the trappings of Austen’s best work: rounded characters, delicate plotting, and real drama.
Whether it's Sixth Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Shark or Double 0 Darcy, no two shows are ever the same.
This is now your fifth year at the Fringe as part of Austentatious, does it get any easier or harder?
The thing that gets harder is that this is our second year now at the Underbelly, so trying to take a show that started on the Free Fringe and making sure that you’re still delivering a spectacle. For something that started in a much smaller venue it’s important to keep up the quality of the improv. So it’s not that it gets harder, it’s just that you can’t relax basically! (Laughs)
How do you rehearse an improvised show?
It’s a tricky question and everybody asks us it because improv is not so well-known here. We do rehearse, but what we practice is making things up, if that makes sense?
We don’t practice stories, or go you do that character... we don’t do anything like that. You meet up and you practice listening or you practice space work, just all the little techniques that are hidden in improv. There’s a lot that goes on behind it, it can look like we’re just making it up but there’s actually a lot of hard work that goes into making something up on the spot.
How did you first get into improvisation? Because it’s not huge here in the UK...
It wasn’t huge in the UK when I started, but it’s much bigger now. I’ve been doing it for ten years and I was a massive Whose Line is it Anyway? fan, but I didn’t know that everybody could do it. I just assumed that it was only those guys.
I then just did a course after I left University and fell in love with it. I then started my own group, I went to teach it, went all over the world with it. I just fell in love with it basically.
Why do you think people have really taken to Austentatious and fallen in love with it?
Having done improv for ten years, it can be quite hard to sell an improv show because if you haven’t seen improv you don’t like it. To say to someone “Anything can happen!” is quite scary when you’ve got your £12 of Edinburgh ticket money.
Where as I think saying to someone that it’s a Jane Austen show, really helped people get their heads around what we were doing. It made them go - “Well, I don’t know much about improv, but I know Jane Austen”.
It wasn’t a deliberate marketing tool at all by us, we just really like pretending that we were in Jane Austen. Then we found out that everyone really likes Austen, so I think it’s just a really nice world to inhabit. It’s full of nice, funny characters.
Is it nice working as part of a team?
Oh yes, it’s amazing. We’ve been working together five years, there’s eight of us now. Two more have joined and it’s like a family, it genuinely is. We bicker and love each other and obviously I do stuff on my own as well, which is fun, but it’s really nice to come to a space where there are other people who can cheer you up and make you laugh.
It’s the best thing to be on stage laughing with your friends.
Last year I watched you in Edinburgh with Paul Foxcroft, any plans to return to the Fringe as Cariad & Paul or on your own?
I'm having a quieter this year so I’m just doing Austentatious this year, because Paul isn’t coming up and I’m not doing a show. The intention is to do Cariad & Paul next year and maybe a solo show as well - it’s just timings and work, so me and Paul decided to have a year off the Fringe.
But we have actually got one night at the Soho Theatre on the 25th July! We’re trying to do more London gigs so that we can build up for next year.
How important is the Fringe to you?
Oh hugely important. It’s where I made my career. The first year I did my solo show, everything came from that, and I think it’s just such an amazing collection of interesting artistic people doing interesting artistic things.
Especially when you live in London which is a big city, if someone says to you “Do you want to come and see a dance piece in Brixton?” you’d be like “Err... no, not really” - but if someone in Edinburgh says “Do you want to come to the courtyard? There’s this German dance group that do stand-up in the middle of it.” and you go “Yes! Yes I do."
I just think having that many people all together is really inspiring and a brilliant thing to be part of, and even though we all moan about it and it is incredibly stressful, we get to do a show every day! That’s so nice, to do a show every single day, and by the end of it you’re so match ready! It’s a nice feeling.
Are you planning to see anyone else whilst you’re up there?
Well a lot of Austentatious have solo shows, so I’ll definitely be checking out Rachel Parris’ show, and Andrew Hunter Murray’s solo show and there’s another guy who’s just joined us actually, Daniel Nils Roberts, who’s half Norwegian and he’s got a solo show which is really really good and he’s not that well known yet, so I think that’s going to be very exciting.
I’m actually directing Lou Sanders’ improv show which she’s doing with my friend Vanessa Hammick, who has a pretty similar tone to Lou! The two of them are doing an improv show called Liars’ Club, where they have someone like me, or someone different every day, directing them live on stage.
It’s the most chaotic, anarchic thing I’ve ever been involved in, because Lou and Vanessa do not do what they’re supposed to do at all. It breaks every rule of improv. They argue back with the director, they just do what they want, but it’s really fun.
Is it quite scary going into a show not know what the audience are going to suggest, and essentially what you're going to do?
Yeah, I mean it is scary, but that's also the thrill. That's why you do it. The thing I always say to people is that when you have a scripted show, even though you know what you're going to say, you don't know how the audience are going to react.
We've all done shows where for some reason, they've just hated every minute of it and you're like - "Why?! It's the same as yesterday!" (Laughs)
So with improv, it's the same thing. You don't know what's going to happen but that's what I like. If they suddenly get bored you can change things, you can change the tone. They want more exciting, or they want a more romantic plot, so it's so adaptable that it's actually, I think, less scary than scripted.
With scripted, if they don't like it after two minutes, there's not much you can do! But with improv you can work with them and figure it out together. Improvisers are creatures that enjoy the stress. What I like is not knowing. I'd be bored otherwise.
There's slightly more improvisation on TV now. There's about to be a new Channel 5 sitcom Borderline and of course Murder In Successville, which I love and you're in...
Murder In Successville has been really exciting, because it's a mixture of scripted and improv. What I really loved was that they let you improvise and they use a lot of improvisers in each episode.
There's an episode where me, Rachel (Parris) and Joseph (Morpurgo) are all in, so it's really nice that they;re allowing people from the improv community to come over and do what they're good at.
It's a really exciting show and I think it just proves that you can have a looseness to stuff, and it's not going to go bad. Because obviously TV is so afraid of risk - they want a script and they just want to know what's going to happen.
Not knowing terrifies them, but you watch Whose Line and you watch Murder In Successville and you see that people like it when it goes wrong. When the celebrities are laughing it's joyful!
My favourite episode is still the Jamie Laing one in the first episode where he was just laughing so much and you can tell it's not fake, it's real. It's a really exciting show and I'm really glad that people are appreciating it.
And finally, how would you sum up the show in just five words?
Delightful. Charming. Improvised. Silly. Romance.