Next month, the National Theatre will play host to Improbable’s “theatrical experiment”[1] Lost Without Words. Having not come across the company before, I delved into Improbable’s website to discover that they are a company seeking a change, in the broadest of terms: yearning for difference in community, society, and the world. Scrolling past an emotion-fuelled statement on the power of creativity, there is a small but significant focus on Improbable’s use of improvisation in both rehearsal and performance. Describing their performance mode as “a tool for social change”[2], the reasoning behind the staging of Lost Without Words becomes clear, however it does places the utmost pressure on the play’s run at the National and somewhat distracts from its nature as its own piece of performance art.

Lost Without Words is an hour-long, improvisational piece by a small group of actors in their 70s and 80s. These actors are described as having just “a lifetime of theatre to help them find their way”[3], both the National Theatre and Improbable emphasise the tension to be felt when a handful of professional, experienced actors enter the stage with no script in sight to anchor the performance. I somehow doubt the audience are going to be sat in the same suspense as when they witness a university improv troupe at Edinburgh Fringe though. A further look into Lost Without Words’s page on Improbable’s website finds a play to be welcomed, but one often framed problematically.

By describing Lost Without Words as “not even a show really, it’s an experiment”[4], Improbable don’t really do justice to the wealth of experience that these actors have. The description borders on expressing the very ageism that the production itself looks to disprove by turning this production into a gimmick. It may be possible that these actors have never ventured into the mode of improvisation before, but they are not young thespians with little material to take advantage of. Their incredible experience should surely be being highlighted as a benefit to the production, rather than being portrayed as a risk. What exactly makes this improvisational performance an experiment beyond a show? Improbable’s website does appear to imply that it is the collection of elderly actors, questioning, “what scenes will these older people create?”.[5] This framing of Lost Without Words risks reinforcing the barrier that the show is trying to break: the exclusion of older actors from the arts. Lost Without Words is being advertised as a performance that is a gamble, a voyage into the unknown, not simply because of its improvisational mode, but also because of those who are performing.

Despite this uneasy method of gathering public support, Lost Without Words carries a great deal of excitement worth paying for. In the unfortunate current climate of ageist theatre, Improbable’s production and the National Theatre’s staging of it places the trust back into the elderly actor and their ability to entertain an audience. Through the title Lost Without Words, the anticipation associated with improvisation is transferred from worrying what will be said to worrying what will not be said; with an incredible breadth of experience under the performers’ belts, the audience will be eager to experience the best stories from these five thespians. It would be of no surprise if members of the public attend several performances to catch multiple anecdotes and tales.

Improbable are to be lauded for putting on a high profile show aiming to tackle the pressing issue of ageism in theatre. The fact that the show is being framed like this can be seen as revealing in terms of the presence of ageism in contemporary theatre and carries a saddening implication that giving this production a gimmicky edge is what is necessary to sell tickets to the public. Lost Without Words is a powerful new show that looks to tackle ageism in the height of its troubles, providing five elderly actors with a stimulating platform to break the barriers that have been highly set by the theatre industry.

Lost Without Words is playing at the National Theatre from 4 to 18 March.

[1] Improbable, ‘Lost Without Words’, http://www.improbable.co.uk/portfolios/lost-without-words/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Improbable. ‘Who We Are’, http://www.improbable.co.uk/who_we_are/

[4] Improbable, ‘Lost Without Words’, http://www.improbable.co.uk/portfolios/lost-without-words/

[5] Ibid.