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Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Shhhh – An Improvised Silent Movie

I Bugiardini

Genre: Absurd Theatre, Live Music, Mime, Physical Theatre

Venue: C Nova


Low Down

A black and white, improvised silent movie with a fifty minute piano riff thrown in for good measure in one of the most colourful productions you’ll see at the Fringe.


I Bugiardini first brought their long form improv silent movie concept to the Fringe back in 2013. Three years on, they’re back using the same simple format : the audience agrees on a theme (in this case a job occupation) and the six players, pianist and over-lyricist create a fifty minute silent movie around it.

Holding a double-sided chalkboard, the master-of-ceremonies invited the audience (through mime, of course) to write down the occupation around which they wished today’s silent movie to be based. This being a democracy, we were also encouraged to debate what we should ask the troupe to improvise around. It’s funny how quickly one person can direct a whole load of sheep, but within minutes we’d all fallen under the MC’s spell, ditched verbal communication and opted for point and grunt, a form of mime I suppose. Thus it emerged that, after a couple of false starts involving a Pokemon Trainer and an Evangelical Priest, this silent movie would be about a Zoologist.

Cue blackout, ragtime on the piano and a series of those screen fillers you get with silent movies that set the scene for you. These looked so professional, I thought the choice of topic had been rigged, but out of the corner of my eye I saw our MC furiously hammering at a keyboard as he composed each slide, which was then projected onto a frieze at the front of the stage, behind which all the action took place.

This being a silent movie, everything was in black and white – slide inserts, costumes, props, lighting, piano, pianist and MC. The colour was created by the sextet of actors, four men, two women as they wove a story that grew in complexity and absurdity as the action unfolded. There’s not a lot of point me sharing the plot with you, given it will be completely different if and when you go and see it, but it was wonderfully surreal, absurdist, funny and, at times, poignant. It’s about as good a display of theatrical teamwork and telepathy as you’ll find as actors, pianist and over-lyricist all steer the plot at times.

The six actors are experts in mime, using the hands to express emotion and meaning, the body to convey language and the face and the individual parts therein to create a character and convey the overall story. Take the heroine of this piece. The way she mimed speech conveyed annoyance, seduction and incredulity as lips, eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, mouth, teeth were employed to great effect.

Commedia dell’arte is the dominant style, of the type seen in silent movies of the 1920’s. And they neatly engineer scene breaks to move the story along, allowing the actors to change character, dress and so on. The over-typist also helps by providing witty (and hastily typed) “signpost” comments on the frieze and the very flexible pianist keeps his eyes glued on the actors as his fingers dance over the notes, reflecting the action unfolding before him.

It’s all very slick stuff and, whilst clearly improvised, is based around a series of set plays and story pieces that would fit most things an audience is likely to come up with in terms of an occupation. But executing this to the standard this group exhibited this takes rehearsal, great teamwork and really sharp minds on the part of all of those involved. Great fun and thoroughly recommended viewing.