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Review: Paul Merton's Impro Chums at Leeds City Varieties

Unpredictable, surreal comedy from masters of improv

Paul Merton's Impro Chums

One stage, a keyboard, guitar and five comedians at the mercy of their audience. Let the controlled chaos begin.

From the gripping tale of Sherlock Holmes and the Vibrating Egg Whisk to a heavy metal song about arsonist firemen and an interview with a professor who trains gymnastic zebras for the Olympics, Paul Merton's Impro Chums was surreal, surprising and brilliantly funny.

The sheer skill of Paul and his co-stars Suki Webster, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Mike McShane to take audience suggestions, from the barmy to the banal, and make side-splitting scenes from them is riveting.

My own shout-out of 'call centre' (when asked to suggest a place of work where two people could meet) resulted in a Sondheim tribute, a Western spoof and even an opera.

The constant interaction with the audience makes the show feel like a fabulous, one-night-only in-joke as you realise you could try and explain the jokes to your mates afterwards, but they just wouldn't understand them.

The cast's firm friendships make for an even better experience — they are having as much fun as the audience and their enthusiasm is infectious.

The fact that neither the comics or the crowd know what's coming makes the laughs even bigger — there's no build up, no theme, it's all off-the-cuff observations and performances.

Mike McShane in particular had a fantastic talent for taking a sketch or scene in a completely unexpected direction, to the delight of both the audience and his fellow performers.

And his character in the final sketch — a Shakespearean parody — was so clever you could hardly believe it was improvised.

It's a dynamic troupe — from Paul's trademark dry wit to Suki's fabulous accents and characterisations, Richard Vranch's musical talents to Lee's ability to lead any sketch thrown at him, and Mike's-larger-than-life comedy.

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Their sole tour date in Leeds, at the City Varieties, attracted fans of all ages, with some planning to follow the troupe to other venues to experience a whole different show.

And I don't blame them — the two-hour gig flew by and I could have happily yelled suggestions all night.

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