Impromptu: alchemists of the theatre

An empty stage. A piano, assorted other musical instruments, and a handful of actors. They ask for three notes from the audience, and are given G, F and D. Immediately it is as if the performers are possessed. Full concentration. They hum the notes, one sits at a piano, the other three pick up a double bass, a clarinet, and a tambourine: an instant quartet. But this is no normal quartet. The clarinet becomes a guitar, the tambourine a mike. The audience ripples with laughter. We hear jazzy blues and the pianist asks the audience: "What does this music make you think of?"
"A blues café!"
"A big black mama!"

The show has begun.
While the audience are still registering the fact that the show is going to be about a Big Black Mama, the actor/musicians are already creating the café. Percussion instruments are transformed into a big cigar and a cleaning brush; we have a female cleaner and male boss preparing for the arrival of the Big Black Diva. A stereotypical scenario, played for laughs.
A nice gentle start. But then we are suddenly behind the bar and we see the bar staff, a nagging couple, the man accusing the woman of being pre-menstrual. We've been dropped into the middle of a Mike Leigh film, a snippet of real life. When the woman confesses she is pregnant the other actress steps forward and does a monologue about 'the thin blue line', expressing all the anxieties of taking a pregnancy test for the first time. 'The Thin Blue Line' is a perfect title for a song and all the musicians grab their instruments. The humour and anxiety of this section ends on a perfect note: the man telling his woman "You've got nothing to worry about, love." A fairytale happy ending... or is it?
For this is just the beginning.

True to its name, Impromptu is unscripted, unscored musical theatre. It is the creation of Ralph de Rijke, together with Hans Kuykens, Grainne Delaney, Hannah Borst and Gaby Agsteribbe. Magical players who transport their audience to another world.
The evening was full of such magical moments. In one hilarious scene all the musicians become babies playing with the instruments, their overworked father trying to both control the children and protect the instruments. The babies magically grew up, could suddenly play a perfect salsa, and when the amazed father remarked to the audience "spooky!" the children proudly replied: "We've been practicing, Dad!"
We met the boss's son, who wants to be a jazz musician, and of course the Big Fat Mama herself, a thin blonde woman whose movement and voice transformed her into an Aretha Franklin. We met many more characters during the course of the evening, and travelled in time, looking into the future to see the boss, now an old man, mourn the loss of his wife who never saw her son become famous. A moving moment of loneliness and old age.

Impromptu are a group of alchemists who have found the secret of transforming the base ingredients of music, improvisation, acting and storytelling into something precious and unique. A performance that sometimes has a story, and sometimes does not. A post-modern juxtaposition of many different elements that sometimes makes sense, and sometimes does not...

The final scene captured all the elements of this wonderful alchemy. After the old man fails to cut his wrists, the stage is left empty. One of the female performers steps forward, wondering aloud what to do next. It is a vulnerable moment. She is lost. She compares the empty space to her state of mind. An actor comes to her aid; he stands next to her and gently explains why the coffin isn't there. A second female actor joins them. We recognise the 'Thin Blue Line' couple, now burying their child. Another actor joins the other woman and we are now watching two couples at a baby's funeral. An awkward moment. Unable to bear the suspense any longer, the girlfriend blurts out to the bereaved mother: "You can have one of mine!" This provokes an outcry from her partner. The scene magically transforms into a surreal comedy with two couples, lifetime friends, now united in grief, then arguing about giving away a child - which leads to a confession that the child was actually fathered by the best friend, unleashing a deluge of scenes and emotions, lies, truth, love, hate, the absurd, the real, a film in fast forward which carries the audience along with it until the whole evening comes to a glorious and absurd end with a song: 'You Never Know What's Coming Next'...

This is not a performance about understanding, although we naturally create our own logic of what it is all about. It is an emotional experience which cannot but affect you. In this respect it is closer to a piece of music. Maybe this is the magic ingredient that these alchemists of the theatre have discovered, the one that makes Impromptu so special. The best way to find out is to go and see a show for yourselves.

Impromptu appear monthly at Amsterdam's Theater de Cameleon. The full playlist is on their website:

Janina Moninska, Connect International (

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