Difficult to admit when the show is so quite clearly well-intentioned, but Lost Without Words has to be one of the dullest and most trite nights of improvisation I’ve ever had to sit through.
I really hope I just saw a dud night. And don’t be under any illusion that it really does feel horrible to be so critical in light of the show’s premise and intentions. But looking past the NT’s commendable and ambitious endeavor to cast six highly experienced actors (all in their 70’s and 80’s) in an entirely improvised show, I have to put my hands up and say the night I attended Lost Without Words, at least, has to be one of the dullest, most cringe-worthy and trite displays of improvisation I can ever remember witnessing. Sorry and please don’t hate me, but I found it excruciating.
The cast have each been ‘treading the boards’ for well over 40 years. Between them, they’ve absolutely countless cinema, West End and indeed Nash credits, and I absolutely don’t question their acting abilities (none more so than Anna Calder-Marshall, the unquestionable star of last year’s devastating LOVE). One of the shows’ two onstage directors makes a firm point at the beginning that none of these actors have ever had any specific improv experience or training, and this makes for an interesting premise (and, understandably, PR angle). The audiences’ interest lies in whether these actors can succeed to fill the Dorfman with life, simply as a result of being and living in the biz for so long and presumably having so many ‘lived experiences’, when (for once) they’ve no source material to hide behind. The unfortunate conclusion I reached was ‘absolutely not, at least on the Saturday night I was sitting (sleeping?) in the audience’. I apologise, for the final time, for the bluntness.
Knowing more about Improbable’s rehearsal process (the company who’ve co-produced it alongside the NT) would be interesting. I appreciate it’s always a risk and reality of improv shows that some nights will just be ‘better’ (in most forms of improv, better seems to be interchangeable for ‘funnier’) than others – but I’m not sure I buy that as a valid excuse here. This group just didn’t seem to have been equipped with enough understanding of basic improvisation techniques, which makes me wonder whether other nights could possibly be ‘that much’ better/funnier/have more meaning (in whatever way you want to quantify that). I agree that it’s far more interesting to be using actors who’ve never done improv training before than seasoned Chicago-trained experts – but I do think you need to at least give them the basics in the rehearsal process immediately before the run, or you’re surely just setting them up to flap around on the stage like dead fish, taking random stabs in the dark at the expense of the audiences’ awkwardness.
Standard, GCSE principles – the notion of giving and receiving ‘offers’, and that about accepting and (not) blocking – seemed to be something of a mystery to these guys (and again, I’m not blaming them). You’d expect, probably, the problem to be offers being (unintentionally) blocked – but that wasn’t even the root cause in most cases. On the whole, the actors seemed incapable of actually issuing any offers in the first place. Scene after painful scene featured groups of two or three, standing around engaging in meaningless conversations, with not one performer even offering one sentence or gesture that ever truly progressed or opened the story up to new possibilities. It’s difficult to describe, and I spent a while working out whether they were intentionally making an effort to make every scene feel like a really shoddy knock-off of a Chekhov play, but I think that’s giving the production too much credit. The directors were clearly aware of how quickly each and every scene became disinteresting and effectively dead-in-the-water, and kept (rightly) interjecting to try and steer scenes in a certain ways. However, I foudn that even these interjections had a relatively small amount of imagination or genuine possibility behind them – and the way in which they fed these instructions (more often than not barking orders at the actors rather than giving them carefully worded suggestions as to how the actors could themselves find new meaning in the scene) seemed entirely counter-intuitive as well. Without any conscious hyperbole, I honestly can’t think of one example, on the night I saw it, where the interjections from either of these two directors assisted in making the scene any more enjoyable.
In itself, the fact there was no attempt for any of the scenes to join up or relate to each other seems incredibly lazy to me. It was essentially just sketch after sketch, and unfunny ones at that. The fact the actors defaulted back to comedy, in every single scene without exception, is also an indicator to me that they weren’t confident enough in their abilities to risk not being instantly validated by (often relatively meager) laughter. They clearly found comfort in getting a little titter out of the audience wherever possible, but it just made the whole thing seem even more tragic.
I’m sorry that I’ve really laid into this, but the whole thing simply felt like it wasn’t clear what it was. It didn’t seem to know whether it wanted to be Whose Line is It Anyway or something more affecting. And it certainly couldn’t be described as anything like either of those. The spiel from the directors at the start (that they were interested, in their process, of exploring the notion of ‘getting lost in things’) was completely absent in the scenes until the very last, when it suddenly felt like it’d been drilled into the actors that they needed to pigeon-hole this theme into a final ‘poignant’ vignette. As soon as they suddenly started talking about paradise in the distance and the lights began to get dimmer and dimmer over a three-minute duration, I lost any hope in the show being able to redeem itself.
I really wanted to like Lost Without Words – and the rest of the audience certainly wanted to as well. If anything, I feel many of the people sitting around me were way too generous with their laughter, (simply due to the premise of the production and the fact those onstage were true veterans) giving the most ineffectual attempt at a joke a much louder laugh than it would receive in any other context. But the general fidgeting was undeniable. Although the 1hr duration is slight, it was abundantly clear no one sitting around me was keen for it to last any longer. A nice and commendable idea for a production from Improbable and National Theatre, but a completely misfired (and downright) lazy execution.