Theatre: Life is sweet

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NOT easy to pass final judgement on Lifegame. Every night, a different guest is invited to watch and oversee Improbable theatre company's instant, improvised enactment of choice moments from his or her life story. On Wednesday, it was the turn of Joanna Lumley to receive the while-you- wait dramatic treatment. What resulted was a warmhearted affair, by turns boisterously hilarious and gently moving, as her autobiographical reminiscences were vividly staged by seven indisputably talented performers.

Despite the acclaim that Improbable's previous shows have met with, Lifegame is no dead cert. The format could be described as a cross between This is Your Life and In the Psychiatrist's Chair genetically modified with grafts of Whose Line is it Anyway?

Getting Ms Lumley on board was undoubtedly a coup, not just because of the lure of celebrity but because she is articulate, candid and possessed of enough anecdotal material to furnish an entire run. And this show clearly needs idiosyncratic input to thrive.

Initially, it all seemed irredeemably cringemaking - like an idealess rehearsal-in-progress (the show is based on workshops run by the improvisation guru Keith Johnstone). As questionmaster, Improbable's artistic director Phelim McDermott came over like an overearnest vicar at a tea party, requesting Lumley's "philosophy", which she gave as "life is wonderful and unexpected" - therapy-speak that was reverentially scrawled on to a blackboard. The company grinned approvingly like brainwashed members of a cult. Their initial tableau, evoking her earliest memory of gazing at trees in Kashmir, stalled immediately.

But with her exotic Far East childhood and wilful, pony-loving character, the sheer force of the Lumley personality began to infect the acting area and particularly Stella Duffy who had been chosen to play her. Before we knew it we were being whisked headlong into her nascent consciousness: imagining her mother and father's first meeting; joining her at table with all the family; sharing her days at boarding school (a mini-puppet show conveyed a teacher's closet ballet dance). With a mock-delicacy that admitted the approximate nature of impro, the actors went on to tackle her first crush (rendered as a Shakespearean pastiche) and her first love, transformed into a musical number.

If anyone had come hoping for gossip about the New Avengers or Ab Fab, they would have been disappointed (though the ghost of a Patsy leer appeared frequently). That Lumley is a star became irrelevant: she even admitted to being unfulfilled as an actress, hankering after the life of a linguist. We left her "on a high bright hill" (well, atop a ladder) smoking, drinking and defying death. If every performance of Lifegame is as memorable as this, Improbable will probably last a very long while themselves.

Booking: 0181-741 2311. To Saturday. This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper