Amidst heated discussion on ageism in acting, it is both unusual and heartening to see five actors over the age of 70 take to the stage. Lost Without Words is a radical way of dispelling stereotypes of the elderly – radical indeed, as not only are these actors in their elder years, but they take to the stage without a script.
In collaboration with production company Improbable, the National has gathered a group of distinguished actors to take part in this ‘experiment’. The production is completely improvised and whilst the cast have decades of acting experience, none have any experience of unscripted theatre; their careers lie firmly in bringing to life the words of others, rather than creating their own.
Guided by the directors and founding members of Improbable, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, the hour long production is divided into a series of short sketches. Unlike the classic improvisation set up, where the audience shout suggestions, heckle and slosh beer on the floor, this was a more professional gig. The directors gave each sketch an initial direction – suggested a setting, gave a prop, set some rules – and then it was up to the actors.
On the evening I saw Lost Without Words, the first 20 minutes were hilariously funny. Ann Calder-Marshall and Lynn Farleigh reminisced about their school days when they pretended to be witches which, through a series of bizarre events, ended in Farleigh hopping around the stage as a frog. Another sketch involved the same two having to act without using any words containing the letter ‘s,’ resulting in a hilarious scene centred around chocolate tasting. It was a wonderful testament to the fact that humour does not diminish with age; they were funnier than most improvised comedians I’ve seen and the raucous laughter from the rest of the audience showed they were inclined to agree.
The second half, however, attempted more profound scenes. With the audience wired up for laughter, this move did not translate particularly well and as the actors sensed this – and tried to add humour into sincere scenes – the sketches became confused in tone and direction. The input of the directors was not particularly helpful in this regard, leaving some scenes to go on too long, cutting others too short.
The whole occasion was, however, fantastic. It was a joy to see older actors so poised, sharp minded and wonderfully witty. It was an experiment indeed, but one which worked. Kudos to the National and Improbable for their daring and for remembering that older actors not only have many years of experience on the stage, but of life – something that was palpable in this production.