REVIEW: The Zero Hour Musical

I have never seen such a standing ovation in a theatre in Cambridge before.

cambridge impronauts Cambridge Theatre Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society Musical Theatre Society student theatre zero hour musical

I was horribly afraid but also extremely curious about this show. How can a handful of people improvise a whole musical in real-time?

The Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society together with The Cambridge Impronauts had the genius (and crazily brave) idea to perform a musical without script, any pre-written melodies or lyrics. I was bowled over.

Six actors and a three-piece jazz band appeared on the empty stage of the ADC theatre and asked the audience what would we like to see a musical about. A series of silly ideas was offered as the location of the musical starting from a closet to a hospital, but finally somebody advised to settle the musical in the Great British Bake Off tent. The actors accepted the challenge and immediately started to imitate baking. The pianist gave a tune and six voices built the first song of the night on that with the “I never thought I make it, but now I’m gonna bake it” refrain.

The story was born in front of us.  The plot happened to be a modern Romeo and Juliet adapted to a very British situation. A baking competition was set in the land of a Lord, with the protagonist, Stevens (Adi George), as the heir of a high-profile family. Falling in love with the shy and ignored competitor, was Susanne (Amy Carmichael), who just desperately wanted to have the first friend of her miserable life. As a tragic twist the pair gets into the final. Of course, the love conquers every troubles, no need to worry.  That’s the plot in nutshell, however this is just the top of the iceberg.

The actors, the light managers and the band had to be in a constant harmony but their cooperation was brilliant. It was so fluent that sometimes I just couldn’t believe that the musical was not scripted.  In some cases, understandably, there were a few false notes or minor misunderstandings, but these just made the whole play more endearingly engaging.

Although one of the songs strongly reminded me of the refrain of Wonderwall, some original hits were also born that night. The improvised melodies were so catchy that I heard them sang on the streets by the audience leaving the theatre. On the way home I also found myself humming songs with lyrics such as  “It’s better than baking now that we’re dating” or the epic “You have no friends, you’ll die alone” opus . I will never forget the unbelievable freestyle rap which was improvised on the topic of baking by Adi George. He was the most striking performer that night, yet you couldn’t complain about the other actors either.

Amy Carmichael and Adi George in rehearsal. [Credit: Elsa Maishman]

I must confess, it definitely catered to the Cambridge audience. It turned the spotlight on the pressure of being the best, to going further and further, to dismiss social life and love in order to gain a first. However, ambivalently it also showed that our everyday life is built on the same stereotypes like the genre of the musical in general. It proved suprisingly easy to reproduce these relatable elements and to laugh at them.

The cast

Although, I’m sorry that the Bake-Off musical was a one-time and unique production, I expect that the really good humor, the professionalism of the band, and the talent of the cast provides a great show each night.

I would even go as far as to say that I haven’t seen such creative improvisation as this on stage before. The Zero-Hour Musical is remarkable.