_Review: Performance Improv_
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Another trip to London, and another trip to the West End; the so-called "Theatreland" of London. But this time it was definitely something a bit different.
The venue was a small private theatre stage, at the City Lit (web link), and the production was an experimental form of drama called Improvisation.
It's possible you may not have heard of improvised plays. I hadn't seen it before either, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Certainly, there isn't any improvisation going on in the mainstream theatres in the area (except occasionally, when the actors forget their lines).
Improvisation, in this context at least, means that the play is totally unscripted. In effect, the actors and actresses make up the plot as they go along.
As the audience gathered into the small auditorium, the actors were already on stage, doing warm-up excersises. These consisted of two actors telling each other who they looked, or what they were doing. It went something like this:
Actor 1: You're looking worried.
Actor 2: I'm looking worried. You're holding your hands together.
Actor 1: I'm holding my hands together. You're walking away from me.
Actor 2: I'm walking away from you. You're grinning manically.
...and so on. Yes, it was every bit as weird as it sounds.
But fortunately, at about the moment when some of the audience were begining to think that this was the whole of the play, the director took the stage and the evening began for real.
So what was it like? Well, on the whole it was actually suprisingly good. The begining was a bit shaky, but that was understandable, as the actors had to create the storyline before they could really do any acting; it did actually get quite good once they'd got the plot moving.
The most immediate implication of the improvised format is that the begining of the play - the first couple of minutes - is actually not far off from the dialogue above. Two actors start the story going by ad libbing a conversation until they've established the basis of a story line. The play develops from there; each actor at some point or another tries to add their own twists to the plot, until it is a satisfyingly seething mess of tangled plotlines.
The fundamental thing is that no two performances will ever be the same; in fact quite probably not even remotely similar. To prove this point, they put on two seperate performances, one after the other, using two sets of actors. The first one started with an couple who's relationship about to break down, and ended up as a slightly surreal look at art dealing. The second was about a recently married man who makes a pass at his best man.
If I had to pick between the two, I would say that the first one was the better story, and better acted. Both were good, but in the first one the actors did a much better job of weaving all the threads of the story together, while the second one was really just the story of the two main characters, while the other five actors were left as bit parts. The first play also made much better use of humour, and of props (I've never seen so much fruit eaten on stage before!).
It was a fascinating and entertaining evening. I was impressed by the ability of the actors to improvise a whole story, and the format seemed to work well.
I do have some reservations, though. But the biggest problem with the concept that I can see is that neither of the stories had a satisfactory ending. Both the performances followed the same pattern: the story started slowly, and then got more and more complicated as the actors invented new relationships between their characters ("how could you do that to your sister?"). At this point, a conventional story would bring everything together into a big finale where all the loose threads get tied up. But here, that didn't happen: just when you thought they were about to come up with a clever ending, all the actors stood up and took a bow, and that was the end of the play. It was like watching the first episode of a soap opera, having a big cliffhanger at the end, and then being told that there won't be any more episodes.
But that aside, it was (as I've said already) most enjoyable. Considering that it was all made up on the spot, they had some very clever stories, and even more impressively, some very sharp one-liners that made the audience laugh quite frequently. The acting was generally good in technical ability too. And there were absolutely no slip-ups: No-one got so much as a character's name wrong, and when all the details are made up on the spot, that can't be easy.
All in all, I'm glad I went. It was a unique experience, and one I'd like to see again.
Spudley Strikes Again