The latest project from the increasingly unmissable Improbable Theatre – principally Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch – is a potentially magical realisation of an idea by impro guru Keith Johnstone. The premise is brilliantly simple: Simpson interviews a "special guest" over the course of two hours or so, and McDermott and four others (accompanied when appropriate by Olly Fox on piano or woodwind) recreate especially salient scenes from the subject's life, or spin off into fantasies inspired by a particular moment or detail. The subject may refuse any question or suggestion, but seems seldom to feel the need to do so thanks to Simpson's sensitivity in probing.
On the first night of the company's week-long stint at the Lyric Hammersmith, that theatre's artistic director Neil Bartlett agreed to enter the hot-seat, and selected McDermott to play him. Various devices were employed in addition to simple (!) improvisation. Bartlett was invited, for instance, to use a bell during scenes if the actors hit on a particularly accurate touch, or a motor-horn if they fouled up; on one occasion – re-enacting "the first snog" – he was asked physically to move the actors around the stage as they improvised dialogue; on another, to whisper his recollections of the actual words used into the performers' ears for them to deliver. In two beautifully moving scenes, he joined the action himself, first playing his own grandfather teaching young Neil how to paint in oils, later as an angelic figure advising the 21-year-old Bartlett on how to weather the storm of coming-out to his parents.
The last decade or so has led us to consider improvisation either as a source for straight drama in a devising process, or as the stuff of comedy performances, rather than as a potential direct vein of serious theatrical material. Improbable are working wonders to eradicate this fallacy. As McDermott sat on the "pouffe of honour" (well, it raised a smile from Bartlett), listening intently to the interview, he would occasionally glance over at the waiting actors and, with a gesture of the head or a mouthed phrase, suggest a way to enact the next scene; now and again he seemed simply to make contact in order to share with them an "isn't this exciting?" grin. He radiates both an infectious keenness to try out ideas, and a profound empathy for his subject – he and Simpson treat what is, after all, this person's life with every bit of the respect it deserves.
Some of the guests in subsequent performances of Lifegame are to be celebrities, some unknown – none, by the end of this touching process of celebration and communion, could be described as "ordinary".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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