Shhh - an improvised silent movie

Mon 5th – Sat 24th August 2013


Victoria Ibbett

at 03:11 on 17th Aug 2013



I saw ‘The Tattoo Artist’, a heart-warming comedy about three brothers whose attempts to rescue their father from the clutches of an evil gangster result in the lot of them being thrown in jail. You will most likely see something entirely different.

‘Shhhh – An Improvised Silent Movie’ invites audience members to suggest titles for a movie that is then improvised, in the style of the Silent Era, to a soundtrack of live ragtime piano music. But audience participation is kept to an absolute minimum. Despite the attribution for direction to “You” in the credits, the story comes entirely from the actors, who develop characters and narrative spontaneously as they go along.

Conceptually and technically, this show was very impressive. The six cast members worked easily and seemingly telepathically to create a complicated and entertaining narrative. Their ability to invent a story out of thin air was impressive, and even more impressive was their knack for making this story consistently funny. The live soundtrack, also improvised, was essential to this humour as it provided a musical score to underpin even the most off-the-cuff comedic episodes. ‘Shhhh – An Improvised Silent Movie’ is certainly a remarkable achievement.

The show boasts a very gifted cast, whose grasp of Silent Era acting styles was near perfection. The overacting, the exaggerated expressions, the codified gestures - the six actors had it down to a tee. Furthermore, their ability to improvise to such a high quality was near incredible.

However, whilst the show boasts a great concept and is executed very well, the insurmountable issue I had with it was the pace. The Silent Era style begs a tranquil tempo, but ‘Shh’ exceeds the bounds of necessity. Boredom overtook me about half way through, and I was glad when the credits finally rolled. Although the laid back ambiance of the ‘movie’ was of the Era, the imperatives of a more impatient audience, well used to the technical advantages of contemporary theatre and cinema, were not met. I would have liked there to be more narrative; more musical variety to the soundtrack, or at least a more pacey plot line.

‘Shhhh – An Improvised Silent Movie’ is a Fringe show that is worth seeing. It is impressive and entertaining and boasts a stellar concept, cast and set. However, it must be handled with care: it is not a show for the impatient.


Hazel Rowland

at 09:42 on 17th Aug 2013



One thing which is difficult to understand is why i Bugiardini, the company behind ‘Shhh’, decided that an improvisation would be the most entertaining format. ‘Shhh’ is a completely improvised silent show with ragtime piano accompaniment, inspired by the silent movies of the 1920s. It is an original idea and the cast and pianist are very clever to improvise a story without speaking. However, it makes producing forty-five minutes worth of entertainment a challenge.

In the performance I saw, the audience chose the title ‘The Tattoo Artist.’ Even though the cast very enthusiastically mime throughout, what was going on was not always clear, so I found my mind occasionally drifted. This could have been remedied by a pre-planned script; using more text that flashes on screen would have made the plot clearer, but this would only have been feasible if the production had been scripted.

Nevertheless, it makes sense for the pianist to improvise. He can react to what is happening on stage immediately, as well as dictate the mood of the scene and help push the action along. On the whole, his playing is very impressive, especially since film music improvisation is a dying art, and a very difficult one to master too. The set should also be commended. Although there are few props and no scenery, the actors mime behind a transparent screen which separates the audience from them, just like a cinema screen.

Yet the lack of script also means that laughs from the audience are sparse. Silent movies have the potential to be very funny, and this would have been easier if their jokes had been scripted. But there are a few jokes that gained a positive response from the audience: when a nun asks for a tattoo of the pope, and when one of the actors mimes being a dog.

Whilst many will not have come across a silent improvised film before, 'Shhh' had the potential to be a humorous and enjoyable production. Regrettably, the fact that it was improvised meant that most opportunities for jokes are missed, and it is easy to become bored when the plot is not wholly coherent. Although the set and the pianist are impressive, ‘Shhh’ is unable to get around the difficulties improvisation creates at its outset.


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