Austin Harrison, a recent graduate with a masters in theatre, is an extremely proficient improviser. Almost single handedly, Harrison keeps us entertained for an hour, which is hard enough when you have a script prepared. Moving around the theatre and into the crowd, he brings the story to us and then hands over the reigns. He is aided by the superb Ben Kelly, who wears a tie adorned with piano keys so we know that he must be the musician. Kelly provides a smooth and energising backing track to this off-beat detective drama. While Harrison does a great job of keeping the action moving, Kelly must be especially commended for effortlessly creating the atmosphere of a crime infested New York.
While the details will change from night to night, the plot centres around our title character, the affable (and self-identified handsome) Magnus Steele, P.I. With a strong New York accent, some (questionable) beat poetry and a small amount of scripted set up, Steele gifts us a tale of ‘crime, horror and audience participation’. On opening night we are tasked with finding the Tic Tac Thief who left behind nothing but the faint whiff of baked beans. Along the way we meet Sammy the Pizza shop owner, Selma the fisher who is allergic to fish and a traumatised Vinny the Clown. Each character is played by members of the audience who bravely step up to help Steele crack the case. The show is reminiscent of Brooklyn Nine Nine, if they let me join in from my sofa. In other words it’s witty, unpredictable and wonderfully endearing and the jokes are pretty cool. Cool, cool, cool.
It is hard, as a reviewer at a show like this, not to accidentally review the audience. I will try to focus on how adept Harrison is at soliciting offers from an unknown crowd and weaving them into his unfolding story. Audiences have a habit of attempting to outwit the improviser, perhaps not knowing how else to handle the sudden spotlight. Harrison was ready for this and handled each suggestion with care, keeping the narrative on track while taking time to follow tangents to their delightful conclusions. When a curveball was sent his way, Harrison responded with a quip, keeping it light while reminding the audience that ‘you get the show you ask for’. I felt in expert hands throughout and had total trust in Harrison to carry us through to a satisfying ending.
Harrison does such a sterling job of narrating the story while simultaneously performing it. But this multitasking is slightly to the detriment of plot development. Audience members are brought into each scene extremely consensually, with Harrison leaving the stage and stating that when he returns, so-and-so will be sat on the chair. While they felt happy to be there and safe to try things, there was a sense of not knowing how to help that Harrison could have fostered more. I would like to see him work in more direction for the guest stars, so they feel empowered to contribute to plot, rather than let him carry that burden or guess responses that will keep the story going.
Another thing I wanted slightly more of, was the warm up engagement that Harrison subtly included, to set up his ‘rules of participation’ without all the admin. At the beginning we were invited to contribute sounds of the city, in a mini demonstration of how to play the game of the show. While this returned occasionally (in some excellent call backs!) I would have wanted a little more of this threaded through. I think it would help share the load a little and the moments where we had to respond as a group to a suggestion from Steele, were genuinely funny and helped build a sense of shared responsibility for the story.
Although I don’t know him well I had the pleasure of meeting Austin recently, during a promenade theatre show he was in. He was in character for our entire conversation and it was the ease in which he kept the game alive while generously accepting my ideas, that made me so keen to volunteer to review his show. Harrison’s facilitation is flawless, which is demonstrated by the enthusiasm of his audiences to join in at every turn. This aptitude for genuine listening and ability to make the audience feel held and safe to play is a rare skill.
Magnus Steele is on at 7.30pm at Circus Bar as part of NZ Fringe until Saturday 7th March. Tickets available here.