EWB x Impronauts

ZOE HIGGINS is swept along on the bandwagon of ethical festivities with some brilliantly engineered comedy from Cambridge’s finest improv troupe.


The Cambridge Ethical Festival has made a point of billing itself as “Not What You’d Expect”, and the odd marriage of Engineers Without Borders and the Cambridge Impronauts scores pretty highly on that count. I’d always thought of engineers as a humourless bunch, jokes limited to either ironic mathematical proofs or Lad Banter. So it was with a lack of expectations and a dragged-along friend that I approached the Engineers Without Borders Improv Comedy Night. I was half right. The Impronauts, with or without engineers in tow, definitely aren’t expected. They are, however, completely hilarious.

Does what it says on the tin.

Does what it says on the tin.

The show is made up of a series of improv games, building scenes around audience suggestions plus dramatic techniques. By the end of the evening, the combination had thrown up (among other things) Stalin at a birthday party, a galactic battle between Homerton and Girton, and a musical about flan. A large part of the show’s humour comes from the Impronauts’ straight-faced commitment to the scenarios they cook up. Characters advance. Genuine storylines, however pantswettingly ridiculous, are consistently developed and resolved. The show doesn’t just lean on absurdity either – there’s plenty of wit and physical humour.  Cultural references to everything from Russian history to reality TV are played upon. Boundaries are pushed – within about a minute, a scene between honeymooners is being performed on top of my companion. This is all made funnier, obviously, by the fact that it’s being made up on the spot.

There’s an element of hysteria in improv: the audience are aware that every scene is only being held up by desperate invention. We’re ready to laugh because the stakes for failure are higher. The Impronauts handle this tension admirably, spinning chaos into increasingly inevitable outcomes, while managing to suggest that they are always slightly desperate. Some of the funniest moments of the evening come from performers pushing each other further towards the cliff – no sooner has a family tragedy/murder mystery has been spun out of a flan dish than the command comes: “I think you should sing about this”. The fact that no one falls off the edge is testament to the skill and confidence of this team.

An undoubtedly very out-of-date picture of The Impronauts

An undoubtedly very out-of-date picture of The Impronauts

Alex O’Bryan-Tear and Chris Smowton deftly stage-manage the evening, starting and ending scenes and drawing suggestions out of the sometimes reserved audience. It’s unfair to single out any of the performers, though – the team are uniformly excellent and play off each other without hesitation, jumping into scenes with helpful characters or one-liners. There’s a sense of fun and real spontaneity on stage. The show has flaws – inevitably, some scenes outstay their welcome, or lose direction and coherence, especially towards the end of the evening. But nothing falls flat, and most of the audience are slightly nauseous from laughter by the time the show ends. In the midst of a student theatre that can take itself too seriously, it makes me happy to see a bunch of people who seem to be just having a good time, and encouraging us to enjoy it with them. If the rest of the Ethical Festival’s events are this good, then my advice is go. And expect plenty.

As part of Cambridge Ethical Festival, running 31st October – 7th November (more info here)