Erin Harrington reviews Present at Little Andromeda, 18 June 2021.
Gift-giving can be wonderful but perilous business that reveals insightful (and awkward) truths about ourselves, our relationships, and social rules that generally go unsaid. Veteran improvisers Laura Irish and Jeff Clark explore some of these points of friction in Present, a gentle and endearing long-form improv show that pokes around in what it means to give and to receive.
Present builds from a simple improv warmup game, in which players offer each other invisible presents, creating a tiny scene between them as they figure out the gift, its context, and the relationship between the giver and receiver. This exchange, of course, is the dynamic of improvisation itself – about how to deal graciously with what someone is presenting you.
To develop this further, Clark and Irish begin by asking the audience about presents we’ve received. This discussion is pretty funny, highlighting some wonderful, absurd and terrible offerings; it unites the audience in equal parts laughter and exasperation. It gives the pair some raw material, out of which they build a long-form show made up of initially unrelated vignettes that slowly weave together. These include an uncomfortable office Secret Santa event, an exasperated woman dealing with her passive-aggressive mother-in-law, a birthday present that revives a 70-year sibling feud over marbles, and a man whose bespoke gift giving is so elaborate it’s overwhelming. Although the characters’ interconnected stories are conflict driven, the scenes are more interested in exploring reciprocity and vulnerability, and the ways patterns in relationships build up and change over time.
Irish and Clark are both generous performers with an eye for character detail and a clear love of collaboration. They are accompanied throughout by Kris Finnerty on the keyboard. His accompaniment supports the stories’ pace, fleshes out the tone of the scenes, and also gives the players space for stillness and silence.
Whether it’s baked into the show, or a product of this evening’s prompts, there’s also an emphasis upon reconciliation, even if this manifests in unusual ways. Its refreshing seeing characters trying, mostly, to be their best selves, even if this is doomed to failure. The show concludes with what each of the characters have learned – a gentle and slightly wry way of wrapping up the narrative threads – before looping the audience back in. As the lights go down there’s a collective ‘awwwww’ from the audience; it’s quite lovely.
Present is a sweet and funny exploration of relationships, be they one-sided, professional, fractious or loving. It’s particularly recommended to those who’ve mostly been exposed to fast-moving, gag-driven improv, or who might just need a reminder that being nice isn’t a bad thing.
Present runs at Little Andromeda from 18 – 19 June 2021.