I had two views of this unique show today. First, this afternoon, Lee from Improbable gave me a little one-to-one taster of the show up on the Old Vic main stage. It was a lull in proceedings during the otherwise frantic Jam; the theatre was empty, the Sacconi Quartet were beginning to limber up behind us, and this intimate little slice of This-Is-Your-Life theatre felt compelling, privileged. To be the subject of Lifegame is a unique experience: to have a group of people listening intently to your recollections of your life, and then put all their comic talents and energies into translating those recollections into pieces of theatre, comedy and song, makes you feel special, worthy of attention, made much of. That’s the Improbable ethos: that, in an age of celebrity, glitter and tittle-tattle that can make us mere mortals feel very humdrum, every life, no matter how seemingly trivial, is a story worth telling. And, of course, a story is all in the telling. Happily, Improbable are fine tellers.
So to this evening’s show. The ‘Lifegamer’ was Shaf, a Bristol taxi-driver and property developer who had come over from Pakistan with his family at the age of five. Lee sat beside him and gently teased out key episodes, enduring attitudes and typical scenes from Shaf’s life and, at the other side of the stage, Improbable’s team of crack improvisers acted them out with eye-popping speed, inventiveness and humour.
Improvisation is a particular talent: it takes a certain sort of mental and physical agility and adaptability to immediately think yourself into, and be completely at home in, characters and situations which were utterly strange to you ten seconds before; and the cast of Improbable are absolute past masters at it.
So we witnessed a typical dinner-table scene from Shaf’s childhood in Bristol, with his elder brothers larking and bickering while Shaf and his younger sister played the dutiful helpers to their hard-working mother; later in life we watched him on the school cricket field, bowling googlies to impress the girls from the neighbouring comp. We saw him at his son’s graduation (astrophysics, Bristol Uni), welling up with pride – but also with sadness that his own father, whose original migration to the UK had set the family on this path, was not there to witness this great day.
It’s a brilliant formula, and a lovely way of watching theatre being made before your eyes. Lee had told me that audiences love watching ‘Lifegame’ because it remind them of similar episodes – first childhood adventure, first romance, first job – from their own lives, but I didn’t think of mine once during the evening: no, for me the pleasure was in watching brilliant actors make funny, moving theatre from facts and details that were as brand new to them as they were to the audience. You feel a unique bond with both performers (who are learning this stuff with you) and with the ‘Lifegamer’ who is having, clearly, a strange and poignant evening watching long-forgotten scenes being brought back to life.
There were a few risks involved, as Shaf turned out to be a private person and not the most confessional of guests (they are picked at random by the front-of-house manager: Improbable know no more of them than we do when they step onstage). This meant that there was often more humour to be had from Improbable making the most colourful theatre they could from such little information, than there was meaningful revelation or insight into a man and his life. Tonight, as a result, was more funny (very funny) than it was insightful. I don’t doubt that other Lifegames are both in equal measure.
The overwhelming sensation, though, is of a truly inspiring and superbly gifted group of performers making brilliant, quicksilver theatre from the story of one person’s life. Even the few facts we learned of Shaf’s life bore out that Improbable mantra: every life is a fascinating and moving story worthy of its own performance. At least, it is in the hands of this lot. (Steve Wright)
Improbable’s Lifegame returns on Sat 30 Oct (2.30pm), Tue 2 Nov (7.30pm) & Wed 3 Nov (7.30pm).