CLOSER EACH DAY from the Wardrobe Bristol aboard SS Great Britain

What fun you can have on boats! Closer Each Day welcomed around 100 souls aboard Isambard Brunel’s steamship the SS Great Britain last night to celebrate May Day with May Day! May Day! – a special one-off episode of their record-breaking theatrical improv soap opera, usually to be found in either Bristol’s Improv Theatre or at the Wardrobe.

Allowed on to the ship an hour and a half before ‘curtain up’, there was plenty of time to explore this iconic vessel. How tiny the bunks are!  What an amazing galley!

At the appointed hour, we were ushered into the marble-columned dining room, lined with charmingly ornate mirrors. We were seated either side of the central colonnade, allowing the action to take place in the oval-shaped space in front of us. There was a sense we were gathered to go on a journey. The interior of the ship played tricks on the mind, maybe we were all heading out to sea?

This was my first exposure to Closer Each Day, who have been running their ‘unplanned, unscripted and unconventional narrative’, for the last six years. Clearly, for some in the audience, these actors have become tantamount to family. With cries and guffaws encouraging these well-known players from the wings, there was always terrific energy in the room.

The scene was set. The SS Great Britain was setting out on its maiden voyage from Newtown to Melbourne. On board, Captain Pablo (Peter Baker) and his crew were making ready. Coming aboard in some pomp, Lord Reginald Longstick (Andy Kelly) and his fiancée Lady Constance Sugar (Lindsey Garwood) took residence in the finest suite, whilst chancer William de Burgh was helping his ‘tavern wench’ friend, Georgina (Rachel Lane), to get aboard as a stowaway. Prisoner Big Dick Johnson (John Lomas) was last to be escorted aboard, hilariously, attired in arrow-print cloth.

A series of tableaux-like scenes were announced offstage, giving the players the parameters to improvise within. Lights were dimmed when the scene was adjudged to have been completed, sometimes abruptly; eg: (Lights up, interview with stowaway) “Any diseases?” “Syphilis.” (Lights down, big laughs).

This is a quick-witted, very watchable ensemble, razor-sharp in timing and delivery.  Baker’s Captain Pablo, looking a little like a black stick insect in his tight, dark Victorian mariner’s uniform, ominously striding and staring, always caught the eye, while Big Dick’s implied aggressive presence, mixed with his occasional lapses into poetic dialogue, conjured many a chuckle. Lindsey Garwood shone as the independent-minded Lady Constance, while Kelly, as her mad-eyed beau, Lord Reg, always found the funnybone with his ironic Victorian references.

Subplot vied with subplot as the performance unfolded. Big Dick had dastardly plans to take over the ship from the all-powerful Captain (who could marry and bury at will), with his ‘Number 2’, a felon masquerading as the ship’s Chief Engineer together with the co-opted ship’s chef, a man in fear of losing his entrails.  The ship bobbed on, through a catastrophic encounter with an iceberg (a titanic accident), past alluring sirens, to a finale that exploded with an unexpected triple wedding, mutiny and murder. Jolly japes all round!  ★★★★☆   Simon Bishop    2nd May  2017