The One With The Improvised ‘90s Sitcom
Review by: Matt Tylianakis, 13th June, 2021
There’s a certain magic in watching improvised comedy being done really well, with the performers deftly weaving bizarre situations and outlandish characters out of random (usually unhelpful) audience suggestions, and the trio behind Mates: The Improvised ‘90s Sitcom certainly didn’t disappoint. With a tight structure, cracking pace and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, I was reaching for my VCR remote and setting ‘Record’ for next week’s episode.
The setup here is an elegantly simple one – three friends… er… mates are living in a New York City apartment in the nineties, and some stuff happens. What that stuff is depends largely on the audience, whose quickfire suggestions form the basis of each of the two ‘episodes’ you’ll be watching. The natural chemistry between the cast members sucks you into their wild kaleidoscope of creepy neighbours and dangerous dates faster than a comfortable couch. And quite frankly, the seeming ease and fluidity with which Alex Keen, Rachel E. Thorn and Hugh Clark were able to launch immediately into the odd combinations we’d thrown at them makes me wonder whether this wasn’t actually the way the original sitcom that loosely inspired this show was written.
For me one of the most important features of improv theatre is the degree to which the performers commit to the audience suggestions, because really that’s the only proof we have that what we’re watching is genuinely improvised. I am happy to report that the cast of Mates were fully on board with making that happen. Yes there was a colleague who was a vampire (tick), but later we discover it’s a vampire whose career choice stemmed from his difficult relationship with his father; sure there was a broken kettle (tick), but the journey to replace it revealed a seedy tea-loving underworld on the dodgy side of town. The constant injection of fresh and unique characters into the story (all performed by Alex, Rachel or Hugh) really made this strange faux-York world feel full of hilarious life. And the short, punchy length of each mini-scene kept things moving along at a rollicking pace.
I guess if I had a small critique it would be that, on the night I saw the show, it felt like a couple of the narrative devices came out of nowhere and could have been more organically introduced – the romantic connection between two of the characters near the beginning, and the cliffhanger setup at the end of the first ‘episode’. These transported me out of the improv magic for a moment as they (rightly or wrongly) gave me the sense that this was something that had been prepared in advance. Also, as a matter of personal preference, I really loved the overt ‘90s references that were sprinkled through the show but wished there had been more of them. Perhaps if the audience could have been encouraged to make their initial suggestions more on-theme that might have been easier.
All in all, a hugely enjoyable show that’s well worth tuning in to. I’m still chuckling as I write this…