Thursday, 16 March 2017

Lost Without Words at the National, or, Yes, We Have Him

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th March 2017.

In advance I had no expectations about this show. Indeed, on paper it was the kind of piece that seemed likely to annoy me – signs of possible gimmickry, no script – though I have enjoyed improv on other occasions. But it turns out to be a gem.

The premise is to take a group of experienced performers in their 70s and 80s who have never previously done improv and have them do so (at the performance I was at the line up featured Georgine Anderson, Caroline Blakiston, Anna Calder-Marshall, Lynn Farleigh and Tim Preece). They are provided with occasional guidance by directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. The resulting scenes range from an ensemble family group, brilliantly transported by Anna Calder-Marshall to a failing farm, to a lovely solo by Tim Preece's bus driver who wishes he'd been a musician (and sounded at times as if he was recalling one of Peter Cook's monologues in Beyond the Fringe).


There's no question that there is speedier, sharper improv out there, and I imagine some viewers may find the pacing and the pauses troubling. I was beguiled. After being slightly sceptical during the opening explanation I was rapidly drawn in. The performers made me laugh and they engaged me emotionally. Yes, some of the scenes are weaker than others, but the underlying effect is sustained throughout.

Trying to explain precisely what this effect was and why I found it powerful I came to the following conclusions. This is an honest show. It doesn't pretend to be more than it is, but what it is, is I think important. It felt like a privilege to watch these actors being willing to take these risks, to go outside what they are familiar with, at their respective ages. Yes, sometimes the risk doesn't quite come off, yet just when I thought some of the scenes had gone off the rails, an individual performer would find just the right line. The combination of experimentation with the deep experience of each performer is also telling – each of them retains a capacity to assert their presence, to command the stage – and the way those capacities are periodically revealed is striking. In an age when there is an entirely justifiable urgency about gender/colour blind casting, this seemed to me a sharp nudge that we perhaps need to think about ageism on stage more than we do.

This is a beguiling piece of theatre. The short run ends at the weekend, well worth catching.

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