It's a rare and somewhat unique experience to see an hour long improvisation workshop on the National Theatre stage, framed not as a Platform or rehearsal event but as a performance. A co-production with Improbable, Lost Without Words places six highly experienced stage actors in front of an audience without a script and invites them to create a variety of 'new' scenes, emerging from improvisation games, guided by directors and bolstered by a supportive audience. Described as an experiment it's certainly a treat to watch and inviting to be part of. At only an hour it feels a little too slight and inconsequential, but there's a richness in its delivery that is easy to embrace and leaves you with much to consider.
Improv shows are the staple of the fringe and festivals and there's much delight to be had as an audience member watching actors think on their feet, free, and perhaps 'lost', from their familial stage contexts of blocking, character and indeed words. Rather than feel frightening it's consistently warm and encouraging – as an audience you feel a huge sense of liberation for the performers, all of whom have no formal improvisation experience and come from highly accomplished stage backgrounds.
The group begin almost as in some form of nursing home, drawn together and quickly disbanded into small scenes – some include multiple characters, others are more intimate two-handers. The scenes that work best are those which are given 'rules' or as the directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson call them, 'games' which set the boundaries for their interactions. Sat workshop style around the stage the directors intervene to navigate each of the scenes and help the actors find their way, sometimes by getting more lost as the situations unfold. With improvised lighting, sound effects and musical accompaniment a wide variety of different scenes are allowed to develop, often sprung from different furniture that at my performance created a domestic murder, a musical set in a hairdressers and a highly awkward family meeting in which the mother and father decided to switch roles.
As an experiment it's pleasant to watch and frequently entertaining. The nature of improvisation more often that not falls back on humour – actors find comfort in the support of the audience that spurs them on and situations often fall into the ridiculous or nonsensical. The nature of the piece means each audience will hopefully come away with a different performance experience, but each of the six actors are delightful to watch and inventive in the situation. In a wider sense the piece speaks about age and the slowing down of our mental faculties – I can only imagine the challenges posed to older actors in remembering lines and verse but the piece embraces its inherent emancipation from any text and enjoys the work actors can achieve when not shackled to specific words or blocking.
A rewarding piece to lose yourself in that leaves you considering not only an actor's role as a 'slave' to the text and director but also the freedom that comes from not exactly knowing where you're going and the endless possibilities available to you on the journey.