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Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel, Edinburgh Preview

| Comedy, Festivals, Theatre | 12/08/2016

Austentatious Publicity Image

In our sixth Edinburgh Fringe preview, Ian Cater speaks to Daniel Nils Roberts of the Austentatious improvised comedy troupe about their award-winning show, chastity, trust, blasphemy and yoghurt.  Austentatious are performing their unique brand of period comedy – based on an original, and often whimsical, Jane Austen title suggested by the audience – at Udderbelly each day until 21st August. 

Most performers I’ve spoken to in the build-up to the Fringe express similar emotions: relief that the phoney war is nearly over and a panicky wish to squirrel themselves away for more revision before an all-important exam.  But from a growing number of improvised comedians, there’s a different vibe: one of calm contentment, stemming from inborn confidence, acting acumen and experience.

Daniel Nils Roberts knows more than most about the world of ‘improv’.  After graduating from the legendary Oxford Imps collective – a La Masia for churning out talented, spontaneous performers such as Ivo Graham and Rachel Parris – he’s starred in a number of improv groups including Racing Minds and Impromptu Shakespeare.

One cannot have too large a party

Recently, Roberts also joined Austentatious, alongside Parris, Andrew Murray, Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Joseph Morpurgo, Cariad Lloyd and Graham Dickson (so recently that his face remains absent from most of the group’s official photos).  As the name might suggest, Austentatious perform completely improvised Jane Austen novels, based on titles suggested by the audience.  Previous shows include Sixth Sense and Sensibility, Double O Darcy and Mansfield Shark, and the Austentatious Twitter feed shares highlights of the growing and amusing list of rejected titles.

CooVzyzWYAArrHaComplete with Regency period costume, musical accompaniment, fantastic wit and timing, the results are usually spectacular, irrespective of whether Colin Firth traipsing from a pond does anything for you downstairs.

Parris told me recently that the group hadn’t intended to focus on Austen, but early shows proved so popular that the theme stuck.  I asked Roberts why he thinks that is.  “Most literary genres are driven by elaborate plots,” he explains, “so there’s a lot you need to do to pastiche them.  But with Austen it’s different: you need the framework of a romance – that’s all.  That makes it really fun to play around with, because the things you need to nod to are fairly basic.”

Roberts also attributes Austentatious’ popularity to the Pride and Prejudice period itself.  “It’s fun to inhabit that time and language.  There are lots of ideas you can draw on: country houses, ballroom conversations, romances, chastity.  And I think most people have some grasp of what life was like back then, so they enjoy seeing you play around comparing how things are now.”

Indulge your imagination in every possible flight

Audiences certainly seem to love the show, even those – like me – with little time for Austen’s writing.  That’s partly due to knowing they’re watching something unique that will never be repeated.  It also stems from the infectiousness of watching performers enjoy themselves so visibly on stage.

©Richard-DavenportRoberts agrees.  “The beauty of improv is that it’s as fun and fresh for you as it is for the audience.  It’s all off the cuff: you can’t have any preconceived ideas, because you’ve no idea what the others are going to do.  One of them will always throw you off with something unexpected.  But that’s usually the best part of each show, and something we never want to lose.”

Being so at ease with the unknown comes from years of experience and, importantly, trust.  “I’ve known most of the cast since university,” Roberts explains, “so I know they’ll save the day if anything starts to go wrong.”

That wasn’t always the case.  Roberts recalls one particularly iffy show in the early days: an improvised religious musical which caused great offence.  “Things just got out of control that night,” he winces.  “But that’s less likely to happen now, because we’re all experienced enough to know how to pull things back.  Because of the trust we have, performing improv doesn’t feel like a stressful experience.  It sounds counterintuitive, but I get far more nervous doing scripted comedy.”

None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives

Like other Austentatious members (including Parris, previewed here), Roberts is performing his own stand-up show at this year’s Fringe, before the group head off on a national tour.  Honey, Roberts’ hour-long debut, received great reviews at the 2016 Perth Fringe and is described by his publicists as “a thunderbolt of daft and electrifying comedy curveballs”.

28932FD86-0416-3D3C-762E92EBC5AEE35DAudiences shouldn’t expect a barrage of mainstream one-liners.  “I wouldn’t say it’s traditional stand-up,” he grins.  “More of a mixture between that, character things and sketchy bits.  I realised my favourite shows were all cleverly scripted performances where the big laughs came from sheer stupidity and utter absurdity.  So that’s what I’ve aimed for.

“I also worked as a video-maker in the past, so I incorporated quite a few multi-media aspects.  Plus there are bears and yoghurt.  Lots of yoghurt.”

The show sounds intriguing, especially as during our interview Roberts gives away few hints of a madcap alter ego, instead coming across as assured, well-mannered and extremely intelligent.  Not to mention hard-working: this month, he’s also performing for the seventh straight year in Racing Minds’ Aaaand Now For Something Completely Improvised and, once the Austentatious run has ended, Adventures of the Improvised Sherlock Holmes.

Doing two improv shows a day seems to faze the well-spoken Aberdonian less than going it alone.  “It’s been an ‘interesting’ journey translating my improv skills to scripted performance.  It took a while to find how to hold an audience in the same way,” he says in a rare moment of uncertainty, before quickly adding: “Hopefully I’ve worked that out now.”

Austentatious are performing daily at 13.30 until 21st August at Udderbelly.  For more information on the group and their upcoming national tour, head to their official website and follow them on Twitter @AustenImproDaniel Nils Roberts is also performing in: his solo show, Honey, at 16.45 daily between 12th and 29th August (not 15th) at The Pleasance Courtyard;  Aaaand Now For Something Completely Improvised at 11.50 daily between 12th and 29th August at The Pleasance Dome; and Adventures of the Improvised Sherlock Holmes at 15.00 daily between 21st and 28th August at Just The Tonic @ The Community Project.  You can also follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielNRoberts.

Get your tickets to all these shows here.

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