Q: Which amazing impresarios have created almost 500 unique stage musicals, in just eight years?
A: The ensemble of talented performers known as the “Showstoppers”, who share the ability not only to act, dance and sing in a wide range of musical styles, but to improvise a whole show, on the spot, including the musical numbers, often combining in complicated harmonies.
The Showstoppers are most likely to be found at the Edinburgh Fringe in August or in the 'Udderbelly' (the amazing venue in the form of a giant inflatable purple cow, which pops up on the South Bank in London during the summer). This is understandable, as most of them are taking time out from performing on the West End, or recording for BBC TV (eg Fast and Loose) or radio. Occasionally, the Showstoppers venture outside the two capital cities, and the Cornerstone Arts Centre at Didcot was lucky enough to receive a third visit from them on Sunday 4 May.
The Musical of the Day is generated from audience suggestions. The compère or 'director' asks for ideas for locations, titles, styles of music etc, which are voted on by volume of applause. In Didcot the audience eschewed the settings of a batcave in Transylvania, the battlements of Edinburgh Castle and the Coliseum in Rome in favour of a venue closer to home – the Didcot Railway Museum – and enjoyed a new musical entitled Off the Rails.
The production values are simple, to accommodate the unpredictability of the theme, but visually striking. The performers all dress in black and red, the set comprises a couple of versatile flats with benches on wheels, a couple of blocks and chairs, and a chest full of simple props, such as hats, shawls, apron, poles, umbrellas, all of which are used imaginatively. For instance, a red umbrella might be pumped to create the effect of a flickering fiery flame or twirled as the wheel of a train.
Throughout the evening, the compère repeatedly halts the proceedings abruptly and invites input from the audience – Will she accept his proposal? What is in the box? What is his guilty secret? – taking the plot in new directions and setting the performers (and the musical improviser on keyboards) new, totally unpredictable and sometimes breathtakingly difficult challenges.
A Showstopper! performance is always a night to remember. Every performance is unique. A different subset (usually five) of the bank of a dozen Showstopper actors appears, bringing different comedic styles and different chemistry. The one constant is the comedic ingenuity of the actors, the versatility of the musician on keyboards, and the wonder, delight, surprise, laughter and admiration they generate in the audience. One Didcot spectator tweeted that he had travelled 90 miles to see them, and they deserve no less. If they return to Didcot next year, remember – it is a mere 14 miles from Oxford!