“Whatever happens over the next hour, we will all discover what tonight’s show is.”
From the word go it was clear that this was a production unlike any other.
Even with my admittedly limited knowledge of theatre I knew it was somewhat unique for a performance to begin with a speech from the co-directors. Yet that’s exactly how Lost Without Words started: Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson (co-founders of the production company Improbable) explained that for the next hour, they would remain onstage and place the actors into a variety of situations that they dreamed up on the spot. No warning, no preparation, and no script.
Yet if that wasn’t terrifying enough, all of the lighting, music, and sound effects would also be improvised – the entire production was completely free form. Oh and the six actors involved have no previous experience of improvised performance, because otherwise it’d all be too easy…
Luckily, this was a fantastically experienced cast, who not only adapted to every scenario thrown their way, but did so in a controlled and measured manner. It would have been easy to corpse and to fall back on one-liners in every scene – especially in the moments when the directors jumped in and requested a wholly improvised musical number – yet the performers held firm in the face of an incredibly difficult task and never broke character.
How difficult was this? Well, to give just a taste, one scene saw Anna Calder-Marshall and Tim Preece forced to display the poignant parting of a father and daughter whilst banned from using any words containing the letter “s”. In another, Caroline Blakiston worked alongside Calder-Marshall as two sisters who were relentlessly fascinated in every single thing they witnessed at breakfast.
The actors’ challenge was made all the more difficult by a particularly receptive audience, who were keen to point out any transgressions and laugh along at any moments in which those on stage had to pause for thought.
As a result, Lost Without Words takes on a strange meta quality, in which poignant and moving scenes are given an added layer of hilarity because the audience are so aware of the show’s improvised nature.
That’s not to say that there were no intentionally funny scenes though. Georgine Anderson’s comic timing was especially prevalent on several occasions, not least when portraying a grandmother whose son appears with a very unusual birthday gift. Similarly, Tim Preece and Lynn Farleigh excelled in their romantic scene which quickly morphed into a comic-tragedy following the directors’ intervention.
Now, the beauty of an entirely improvised production is that a cast member dropping out at short notice causes far less havoc than normal. Still, it was a shame to hear that Charles Kay was unable to perform on this particular night even though the rest of the cast didn’t miss a beat.
More impressively still, I can’t think of one occasion where any of the actors spoke over or interrupted one another, there is clearly real chemistry and understanding within this cast. This helps to give the performers a level of control over what could easily become a runaway train of a production in less capable hands.
A somewhat surreal evening from start to finish, Lost Without Words is a really enjoyable watch. Plus there’s something rather gratifying in knowing that the performance you witnessed that evening can never be replicated. With the show’s run closing on Saturday March 18th, make sure you take the chance to see a wonderfully talented cast in action.
Lost Without Words is a co-production between Improbable and The National Theatre. Book your tickets here.