We’re welcomed into The Stage at BATS Theatre by tonight’s host and local legend Jen O’Sullivan. She directs us to the QR codes on the team banners which frame the stage. These lead us to a slick app - designed by tonight’s scorekeeper Matt Powell - which allows us to answer prompts which will be used to inspire the action throughout the show. This is a fabulous innovation as audiences are delighted by their suggestions coming out throughout the performance, without the pressure of yelling your idea for the whole room to hear - a feature of traditional improv shows which more reserved audiences often shy away from.
O’Sullivan quickly gets the show underway and introduces musician Matt Hutton (armed with a double-set of keyboards to live score the show) and our teams. Each team comprises three improvisers with tonight’s cast starring Tara McEntee, Malcolm Morrison, and Elliot Lam as “The Bones” and Jed Davies, Megan Connolly, and Guanny Liu-Prosee as “The Hearts”. Both teams have their own hand gestures which the audience will use to vote for their favourite scenes throughout the show. The energy in the room is immense and everyone is ready for a spicy battle of wits.
A unique feature of The Big HOO-HAA! Pōneke is that it is a 90-minute show with an interval. We’re accustomed to 50 minute jaunts in the improv world, but this is a full meal for comedy consumption. The first half consists of five “rounds”, some with prescribed games which both teams play but at its centre are the “choice” and “challenge” rounds. In the choice round each team gets to choose any game they wish, while the challenge round sees them set a challenge for the other team to complete in 3 minutes. The Hearts set a fabulous challenge for one of the team members to be “evil” and try to sabotage the scene, while The Bones ‘stage directions’ scene was one of the highlights of the first half, with Morrison and Lam’s sense of play and willingness to mess with each other proving pure delight for the crowd, as they found themselves getting up a sweat, slaloming between the red stage boxes for an entire scene.
Throughout, Sam Irwin provides improvised lighting to accompany the scenes and delivers some lovely lighting states built on the fly. A particular highlight is during the “Sing About It” musical segment, with flashy lighting sequences conjured up on cue as the players burst into song. This along with the stage banners, Hutton’s expert underscoring and Powell’s snazzy app provide a feeling of some genuine production value which is often lacking in improvised work. Each round sees 5 points awarded to a winning team, with the odd bonus point dished out along the way. At half-time it’s a dead heat and scorer Powell informs us “they needn’t have bothered”. At the interval, we are invited to once again head onto the Hoo Haa app and participate in a competition to come up with the best punchline for the set up “What’s the difference between a baby and a T-rex?”.
The second half takes a largely different turn. We have a couple of quick games to get back into the swing and then launches the big set piece “cliff hangers” which will take us through to the show’s conclusion. In this final act of the show, two players from each team take on the role of “director” for a scene each. After we’ve seen the start of each of these scenes, the audience votes for their favourite and one scene gets eliminated. The three remaining scenes play out their next chapters before another elimination vote until we are left with one supreme scene to rule them all. The director of this scene wins big points for their team at the conclusion of the show. Tonight’s directors set up a great variation of scenes inspired by everything from a bran muffin (literally, Morrison just placed a bran muffin centre of stage and ordered them to begin) to Connolly’s Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnstone-inspired action horror - a scene which eventually one the cliffhanger section of the show and saw The Hearts become tonight’s victors.
This two-part format works an absolute treat. The short, sharp first half gets the giggles rolling and lends itself to high-pace, big energy performance. The second half settling into a longer set-piece creates a great natural arc to the show and prevents audience exhaustion at quickfire gags and constant resetting, which can be a common pitfall of short-form improv. On this New Zealand Premiere evening, the players absolutely bring it in terms of energy and provide a great night out. Jed Davies was particularly on fire this evening with his quick wit and sensationally comic timing having the audience guffawing throughout the evening. Powell’s smart filtering of the online audience suggestions, and gleeful fielding of requests from the players also made the job of scorer (essentially onstage administrator) a fun and entertaining addition to the show.
There were undeniably some opening night wrinkles which I’m sure will be ironed out as The Big Hoo Haa team get comfortable with this new show and each other. There were moments when performers forget the rules of their own games and O’Sullivan catches themself speaking to the cast rather than the audience on more than one occasion. Punchlines and dialogue are often lost due to a lack of diction, or speaking over one another.
I think this show will really sing when the technical parts of the show are seamless and streamlined. One of the downsides of this style of improv show is that there is a lot of explaining and scene set-up, particularly at the top of the show. The more this can be condensed and energised, the better the show will get.
An element that will also help bring the ‘between-scenes’ parts of the show to life is for the crew to build in more of what we in the biz call second story. This is the home for smack-talk, competitive tension, playing the underdog, building a comeback kid narrative throughout the show etc. There wasn’t much of this at play on opening night, and I’d love to see the team build these b-stories into future shows. The format of The Big Hoo Haa absolutely leaves room for it.
All-in-all The Big HOO-HAA! Pōneke was a fabulous night out to kick off my fringe festival. It’s a big, bold offering which guarantees laughs with some of the best brains and most charismatic performers in Pōneke strutting their stuff. They have two more shows in fringe on March 10 and 11 at BATS theatre.
Disclaimer: The improv community is small and, being an active member of it, I know the majority of the show’s creators and performers well. Some of them are close mates, and almost all of them have been collaborators, teachers, or students of mine at some stage. I’ve done my best to provide a balanced and fair review. If you have any feedback, we love to hear from our readers! Please feel free to leave a comment or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.