Whose Line is it Anyway? began its televisual journey on Channel 4 in 1988, after a short run on BBC radio earlier that year. The show, which ran for 11 years and spawned both U.S. and Australian versions, revolved around four performers taking part in a series of improvisational games and challenges, creating short comedic skits and songs, often from suggestions thrown out by the audience, or on instruction from host Clive Anderson, who was also there to buzz them out when things got too silly.
As Clive Anderson says in his introduction to Whose Line is it Anyway?‘s 30th anniversary Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall – Whose Line…? didn’t invent impro but it did popularise it. Whether you tuned in as an avid student of theatre, hoping to pick up some tips, or because it was a relaxing evening wind-down after a tiring day, back in the 90s the absurd antics of Josie Lawrence, Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, Tony Slattery et al. were a must-watch. Whose Line…? wasn’t just funny – it was cool.
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This special Christmas show features six – rather than the standard four – performers, reuniting Clive Anderson with series regulars Josie Lawrence, Colin Mochrie, Mike McShane and Charles ‘Chip’ Esten, and also includes Brad Sherwood and Jeff Davis, who participated in the U.S. version.
It’s wonderful to see the cast together in 2018, back for six shows packed into a mere two days. It’s almost inevitable that someone’s favourite game will be missing from this approximately 1 hour and 40 minute long live performance, but it does include classics such as ‘questions only’, ‘film and theatre styles’, ‘props’, and the ever-popular finale that is the ‘hoedown’, as well as a variety of new challenges. It makes great use of suggestions from the audience, both shouted out and written down, as well as asking volunteers to go on stage and participate in the action, providing sound effects, moving the actors around like puppets, and even acting as props.
One of the big parts of Whose Line…? was the live musical accompaniment that worked in sync with the impro performances. For these six shows it is provided by the multi-talented Laura Hall and Linda Taylor, who worked on the U.S. version of the series. These shows are quite heavily weighted towards the musical aspect of improvisation, which was a little surprising but entirely enjoyable.
The beauty of the format is that no two shows are the same. Everything is dependent on the instructions and suggestions given, and how the cast respond to them. There’s no way that an impro show with an experienced cast can really go wrong – except when they mis-hear the rules or forget what it is they’re supposed to be doing – and even then it just descends into glorious chaos. A mishap is turned into a recurring joke and a skit from the middle of the show is referenced towards the end, making the performance feel intimate: a standing joke between old friends. On Sunday, there was even a callback to the original series, with one of the cast setting Colin Mochrie up to do his now-famous velociraptor impression. Good times indeed!
It wasn’t entirely effortless – 30 years on everyone’s back is a little less flexible! – but the absolute energy of the cast, who were totally switched on and giving one hundred percent throughout the show, was impressive and praiseworthy. Josie Lawrence, glorious as always, certainly still knows how to steal the spotlight. Watching the show was like meeting an old friend who hasn’t changed at all in the intervening years. As one game flowed into the next, the laughs just kept coming.
The Royal Albert Hall might seem rather a majestic setting for such absurdities as Whose Line is it Anyway? is likely to present. But if laughter is what keeps us going, spurring us on in times of darkness, then comedy deserves the grandest of stages, and this is indeed a fitting location for such a show.