On the way to Slattery Night Fever, the new weekend impro night featuring ex-Whose Line Is It Anyway? man Tony, I read two old interviews with its star. One was from 15 years ago, when Slattery was just emerging, it seemed, from a breakdown that derailed his career. The other was from this summer, when he ventured back to the Edinburgh fringe with the Whose Line Is It? team. In each instance, the interviewer wrote about being reduced to tears by how low Slattery fell – and by his resilience. I’d not quite registered the extent of his difficulties – with mental health, drugs, alcohol. The lurid stories Slattery has to tell – chucking his possessions into the Thames, lying naked under a car, being bitten by rats – almost beggar belief.
Retrospectively, that reading was unideal preparation for Slattery Night Fever, at which Tony and friends present us with vanishingly insubstantial impro-comedy about eccentric drinks parties and magic carrots. It’s on the London fringe – only a few miles from the Willesden housing estate where Slattery grew up. It’s cheap. And it’s too flimsy a construction to bear the burden of being “Tony Slattery’s comeback”, far less the thought of everything he’s been through since his TV and West End ubiquity 20 years ago. But if you can put all that out of your mind, it’s a diverting evening of unadventurous impro – more or less identical in format to Whose Line?, even if in this case the talent doesn’t seem quite so evenly distributed among a six-strong cast.
Slattery both is and isn’t the star. He introduces the event, and it is instantly apparent he’s a loose cannon, marching to the beat of no one’s drum but his own. If you’re a purist, that’s a problem. Slattery is all over the place as an improviser, repeatedly misunderstanding the format of any given game (“Am I still a robot?”), trampling over realities carefully established by others, dragging scenes and stories off at unhelpful tangents. While his five colleagues are trying to create an ad hoc play about body-snatching, Slattery keeps ranting about satanism and free will. Teamwork doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.
Which is fine, assuming the rest of the gang are happy to clean up after him. Because Slattery has the charisma to get away with it. Here he comes across as the sozzled, erudite old git, a Falstaffian lord of misrule, barely bothering with the rules, less concerned with progressing a story than engineering a snog with the other men on stage. He’s game, he’s blithely uninhibited – but it’s left to others to make any semblance of sense. Veteran impro man Alan Marriott rises highest to the challenge: his Halloween song is a highlight. Luke Sorba also impresses as a murderer obliged to guess the details of his own crime.
It’s not, finally, an exciting evening’s impro – although next weekend it might be. On this occasion, the cast comprises five men and one woman (the organiser, Lesley Ann Albiston) – a too-common problem compounded here by the occasional sexism of the comedy. Albiston is frequently cast as “whore” or “adulteress”, and Slattery greets one of her entrances (in a Shakespearean scene) with: “Oh look! An unnecessary wench!” The final joke of the evening finds the long-suffering Albiston playing God, and still being talked over by the five guys. It is a bit dispiriting.
That old-school atmosphere is reinforced by the supper-club setting and an audience whose idea of a funny title for a scene is Felicity Kendal’s Underwear. In the event, the title of the improvised play we’re promised after the interval is Dead Is the New Black. But this Halloween-themed cod-horror never coalesces into a coherent whole. That it stays jolly and enjoyable is due in no small part to tonight’s main man, a bleary agent of chaos who still occupies the limelight with no little rumpled panache.