It’s the late 19th century and Sherlock Holmes is on another case with his trusty friend and confident Dr John Watson. Through a series of interrogations, tips, and disguises, Sherlock thinks he has pieced together a string of murders and cracked the case. It’s just like any other murder mystery except this one is entirely improvised!
Joining forces for two performances, some of Sydney’s best improv and comedy talents including Lisa Ricketts and Kate Coates from Improv Theatre Sydney, Jon Williams from Impro Australia and comedians Will Erimya, Edan Lacey with Patrick Magee as Sherlock Holmes used suggestions from the audience and murder mystery conventions to construct a story on the spot. The musical accompaniment of James Tarbotton helps add some structure and atmosphere to scenes.
In this performance, the cast must write the Mystery of the Speckled Shirt in realtime. A young street urchin (Lacey) informs Sherlock and Dr Watson (Williams) of a mysterious body that turns out to fit in to a number of unexplained missing people on the train line including Smithie (Ricketts), a beeswax shipment loader, and some posteriously named ex-servicemen. Sherlock reveals that John’s friend from the war in Afghanistan (Lacey) has been using bee venom and beeswax to coverup his arms-trade with a Turkish businessman (Erimya) and perhaps stimulate further unrest between Turkey and England, and he has been murdering those who know too much, or something to that effect.
In all honesty, the plot of long-form improv isn’t the be all and end all; it’s the character and world-building that keeps the performance compelling. Kate Coates, with her commitment to her various characters from a young girl in charge of informing people of the train timetable to a beeswax merchant with deep regrets about being an only child, is a stand-out performer. Coates has a subtle and gentle humour that carries her fellow cast members along on her tangents instead of leaving them scrambling to make sense of their shared scenes. In the same vein, Erimya construes competent characterisations from some difficult set-ups including a Turkish canon salesman to an exuberant Lacey and a sausage seller named Sausage. While forming the butt of many jokes throughout the performance, Erimya gets the final laugh when he reveals himself to be Sherlock’s arch nemesis Moriarty!
The structure of this cast’s long-form improv where they use an audience suggestion to inspire a genre-specific story is a very accessible style of comedy. It lends itself well to the establishment of audience-performer in-jokes, like the speaking rat through-line of this specific performance, that gives the audience a sense of familiarity and inclusion. When the comedy industry has a long history of exclusion of marginalised voices and a reputation for prioritising “edgy” discomfort, improv can feel like the last bastion of friendly comedy. It’s inclusion within the programming of Sydney Comedy Festival isn’t unappreciated.
The Game is Afoot! An Improvised Sherlock Holmes Mystery was performed at the Factory Theatre May 4th – 5th as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival.