Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh Diary: Weeeird improvisational science

“It's usually a bit mental but maybe not that mental.”

Improvisation is often talked about bombastically as an environment in which “anything can happen,” especially up here at the Fringe, where each new show competes in its publicity and press releases to sound wackier and more out-there than the last. Certainly there are shows where the action takes unexpected turns, but much of improvisational comedy is grounded in practice, and has certain rules.

Comedian Thom Tuck is a former member of both improvisational troupe the Improverts, as well as a regular on late-night improvisation show Voices In Your Head. He's also up at Edinburgh with two shows of his own. “It depends on the format,” he tells me when I ask about the science and preparation involved. “There is short-form and long-form improvisation. Short-form – what the Improverts do, and [sort of] what Voices does, is usually based on games.”

Mike Slater is a founder member of No Shoes Theatre, whose show The Improvised Musical is currently in its fourth year at the Fringe. They, he tells me, are very much “long-form” improvisation, narrative arc and all, and preparation is key. “The main thing is being around each other a lot, and playing the sort of games that make spontaneity happen. We sit down and talk about how stories are constructed, and songs; what makes a story, what makes a song. We spend ten hours a day together.”

“We know a certain number of things from experience,” he goes on. “Stories are made up of problems and solutions, so we introduce a major problem early on, and try not to introduce them after half-way through. We know that we get about seven songs, and we know that we get about nine scenes. Occasionally we throw all of that out the window. The more we do it together, the more we get a feel for what the other person's doing, where they're going.”

In Voices In Your Head, rather than follow the instructions of a stage presence, or of the audience as in The Improvised Musical, the performers obey The Voice, embodied by Deborah Frances-White, who stands at the back of the auditorium with a microphone. It's her show, so what she says goes – usually.

The Voice is quite antagonistic in tone, and when she picks on Phill Jupitus, who had never been on the show before – performers have no preparation for the show, and don't know what to expect – an extraordinary scenario began to build itself. Improvisation encourages performers whole-heartedly to commit to their first instinctive responses. “What is your name,” asks The Voice, and the performers will come up with one on the spot, in the moment, and build a character and a scenario around these instantaneous associative responses.

This is quite unusual for an improvisation show. More traditional groups practice the games and structures involved before going on stage. “It's fun when you're put on the spot, though,” says Tuck. “You're excited to see where it's going to go.”

One particular episode went very off-piste indeed. A power-struggle developed between The Voice and the character Jupitus was building. The dialogue between the two became faster and faster, angrier and angrier, and more and more intense, and ended with Jupitus advancing through the audience, shirtless and mad-eyed, on an audibly terrified Frances-White at the back, the two of them screaming at each other at the top of their voices, their character arcs locked by Jupitus' responses into that of former lovers. The audience was electrified, The Voice audibly shaken. “This next one,” Tom Salinsky – another of the performers – muttered after the audience and The Voice had both had a chance to settle down. “Is called: Follow That.”

After the show I run into Tuck in the Pleasance's Brookes Bar, and ask if it's always that intense. “It's usually a bit mental,” he replies, “but maybe not that mental.”
 

Phill Jupitus had a baptism of fire at improv show "Voices in Your Head". Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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