Despite being a little worse for wear the morning after my last night at the Fringe, I am in a good mood. This is because I am finally meeting ‘Men with Coconuts’, the brilliant improv group who entertained me so much last week in their show at La Belle Angèle.
I meet Steve Worsley handing out flyers on the mile and he introduces me to the other members as we head off for coffee. I ask them if, in their 5th year, they are still enjoying performing at the Fringe. Charlie Hindley replies, ‘Extraordinary isn’t it! We do have such fun, having started with really small crowds five years ago. We actually were reviewed in our first year, which gave us a lot of stuff to work on’. Mindful that my review of last week is not so much constructive as adulatory, I move on swiftly, and ask them, why improv and not scripted comedy? Will Naameh, whose freestyle rap performances at the Fringe are another feather to his bow, responds fastest: ‘I think we’re very lazy!’. Sam Irving takes a more serious tone. ‘It’s just about the fun and spontaneity. Having fun with all your friends on stage, a lot more freedom to enjoy yourself and not stress about hitting all the cues and all the marks…’ Steve builds on this: ‘It’s just a sort of organic creative process; it’s really nice having things happen naturally’. There are, of course, unique challenges to improvised shows. Charlie tells me, ‘When you’re practising a sketch show, there’s always a danger that you could do something that’s amazing in rehearsal, when improvised. Trying to do that again is an extraordinary craft and it’s not something that always comes off’.
I wonder at what they consider the most successful parts of their shows. ‘Sometimes the best moments for us are the accidents’, says Steve. ‘One time Will was very tired in an improvised Bond, and accidentally said Miss Monkeypenny instead of Moneypenny’. ‘I had to take Monkeypenny on a mission with me!’ Will remembers fondly. ‘It was Monkeypenny who saved the fate of the UK’.
It’s becoming clear that being a successful improv troupe relies on the trust between its members. Sam explains, ‘There’s a great pleasure in messing with each other, asking people to explain things in scientific detail… If you or someone else is guesting in a show, you’re not as comfortable doing the same level of fuckery!’. I think that this might be down to competitiveness between the actors on stage. Nothing of the sort, according to Will. ‘The only times it appears that way is when we make each other do stuff on stage, like asking someone to tell me their family’s motto in Latin’. ‘Or like when Will forced me to describe the specific scientific process of nuclear weaponry’, complains Steve humorously. Sam adds, ‘again, it’s all about trust. It looks like I’m just messing with them but actually I’m giving them a chance to look good!’.
I’m told that the name Men with Coconuts was born when they had the idea of doing improvisation combined with radio style sound effects, and though that format came and went, the name stuck. I wonder, therefore, if their comedy has developed along with their style. ‘In the last eighteen months or so Trump has obviously come up a lot’, says Charlie. ‘You can see culturally where people are at, and respond to this’. Steve adds, ‘You can play things like this a little differently. We’re not against being naughty but can change the meaning of what the audience request a bit’. I note that lots of shows I’ve seen at the Fringe rely on explicit, in-your-face jokes to force a laugh. ‘Shock humour’s an easy way out’, agrees Sam. ‘We do swear, make dirty jokes, but that’s not the basis for the show. The show has a good narrative, a good storyline, is lots of fun – the dirty stuff can come after that’.
It’s interesting to see that as well as farce, the team don’t want to shy away from more high-brow acting. Steve tells me about an American improvisor who told them in a workshop, ‘Play to the top of your intelligence’, and this seems an important piece of advice for all of them. Charlie explains, ‘we see a lot of improv where the improvisers do everything they can to move away from something emotionally interesting or moving, because it might not be funny or they might not be comfortable. We want to go to an emotional zenith if it’s going in that direction: it’s interesting and fulfilling. ‘There are going to be peaks and troughs, moments of reflection; equally there will be exceptionally fast-paced scenes which drive the action forward. We need to take care of each other and the audience, not just take the piss!’.
I remember a moment in the show I watched where the team acted out the marriage of a couple in the audience who had met each other in the Air Force. Will tells me, ‘you need to interact with characters on the emotional level, and not just disparage them’. All of this deep reflection makes me wonder how on earth they practise for each show, everything being improvised – they even manage to rhyme in the musical sketch! ‘You should see the notebooks in Will’s room’, Charlie says. ‘Of rhymes I should say!’, jokes Will, to general mirth.
It’s clear, though, that practice and experience is vital. Charlie tells me that Steve and he used to do a lot of musical theatre, and have become familiar with how musicals operate. Interestingly, they all emphasise the importance of learning from improvisation experts, and list some of the workshops they’ve gone to in order to carry on improving their act. ‘Improvisers are so honest and authentic, giving advice; there are no trade secrets’.
They then chat about the Free Fringe, and how its ethos of allowing anyone to perform a show is why they like to take part in it. They contribute a lot of their donations to the Free Fringe, which is nice to hear, and spend other donation money on developing as a group. ‘So where do you see yourselves going from here?’, I ask. ‘We’re actually going to perform a political party’, jokes Charlie, and I feel slightly embarrassed for having asked. ‘More of the same really’, Sam adds helpfully. They want to expand their horizons, have aspirations of taking their show to Australia and New Zealand, and are clearly very excited by their project, having great fun together. ‘I think that it’s the most important thing, to enjoy yourselves’, says Sam. ‘I’d rather do a decent show where everyone on stage is comfortable and happy than anything where someone might not be happy afterwards’.
They’re all an impressive bunch, so I finish by seeing if they themselves have any advice for aspiring improv groups. ‘Regular practice with the same group’, says Sam. ‘Never stop learning, doing new things, and having new teachers’. They all agree that continuously learning is the most important thing to building a successful troupe. Charlie concludes, ‘Even the biggest show groups in the country still go to workshops’. I thank them all and take my leave, very privileged to have met such a nice group, and eager to see more of them in action.