They say that the greatest fear for any actor is to stand on a stage in front of a packed house, and to dry up, unable to remember a line or direction. To be lost without words. It happens in actors’ dreams and it happens, sadly, in old age when the mind is unable to retain the dialogue learned from a script.
Those in the business will tell you that it is their single, most terrifying, nightmare, often waking them up in a cold sweat. Those worst affected even imagine themselves naked and dumbstruck.
Thankfully the experienced cast of four – with a collective age of 306 years – now appearing on the Dorfman stage at the National Theatre have found their voices in the entirely improvised hour-long production, Lost Without Words.
Improbable Theatre has moved into the space for two weeks to stage a theatrical experiment. Just what would happen if you took a bunch of elderly actors and thrust them onto a stage without a script – or a play – or anything other than a few cursory stage directions and the odd prop? Would they stand on the cliff edge and topple silently to their deaths or muster up the courage to fly without wings?
Their guinea pigs are all experienced stage and screen actors – Anna Calder Marshall, aged 70, Poldark’s Caroline Blakiston, 84, Lynn Farleigh, 74 and Tim Preece, aged 78 – but none have ever done improv before. They’re used to formality, proper dialogue to learn, a plot, and characters to inhabit.
And, do you know what? Watching them venture out for their very first performance on Saturday night, was exhilarating. They all proved fearless, embracing this strange new world with performances with were bold, inventive, inspiring, poignant, and very funny.
It opened with the foursome sitting around the stage feigning sleep. With them was Improbable’s co-directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson who were to give the group on-stage prompts and ideas, and keyboard player Steve Edis who would be providing discreet and occasional background music and effects.
The cast “wakes,” approach a chair in the middle of the stage, and give each other a group hug. Simpson addresses the audience. “These are the actors. There were six of them when we started, now there are only four.
“In their long, distinguished careers they have never been in a show, on stage, without a script”.
What followed was a series of random scenarios suggested by the directors with the quartet either taking turns, appearing as a group or as a duo, to act out however they saw it in their mind. Most of it was brilliantly funny, all utterly convincing and compelling.
My favourite was a moving and heart-warming two-hander about marriage, age and devotion. Anna Calder-Marshall and Tim Preece played a long-time married couple, lying in a makeshift bed. She slyly moved her hand under the sheet, looking for a bit of late night romance. There’s a cheeky glint in her eye but Preece looks terrified. He’d rather drink his cocoa.
They both complain about having difficulty sleeping. “You wriggle,” he says. “You snore,” she retaliates. Preece suddenly looked desperate.
“I don’t want to sleep in the spare room,” he utters. “I thought we were okay.” “We are okay,” she reassures him.
She feels under the bedclothes again. “Though a little bit more activity would be nice.”
After a prompt from McDermott she starts serenading him and he joins in. The scene ends with the two elderly lovebirds having an Andrew Lloyd Webber moment and falling asleep in each other’s arms.
The cleverest act came from Caroline Blakiston and Preece who have to hold a conversation starting with consecutive letters of the alphabet. I can imagine this being the sort of clever wordplay carried out in drama classes and it kept the couple on their toes.
Anna Calder Marshall proves to be the group’s comedienne, often just giving the audience a knowing look to produce laughs. In the opening story she plays an eccentric solicitor giving Lynn Farleigh, as the astonished client, a cock and bull story about an inheritance.
She show ended with a fine, heart-rending, solo performance by Blakiston that had everyone engrossed.
Lost Without Words is a very vocal and extremely funny show. I imagine that each performance will present fresh challenges for the group but I’m confident that they will continue to create powerful, brilliantly original experimental drama right in front of their audiences.
Who needs a script?
Lost Without Words runs at the Dorfman Theatre until March 18.
Lost Without Words
Four elderly actors find their voices in Improbable Theatre's entirely improvised, bold, inventive, inspiring, poignant, and very funny theatrical experiment, Lost Without Words at the National Theatre.