Head Quarters / Bertrand's Toys
Various venues, London
January, 2001

The brace of shows opening this year's London International Mime Festival are topographically only a few yards from each other on the South Bank, but worlds apart in style and tone. In the foyer of the Lyttelton Theatre, Manchester's Whalley Range All Stars offer miniature whimsy, whilst in the Purcell Room the blackSKYwhite company from Moscow conjure up a dark grotesquerie whose horror is all the stronger for being undefined.

The Mancunians have built a little cabin in the theatre foyer for their free ten-minute show, Head Quarters. The strangeness begins before the audience take their seats (ten at a sitting), as our heads are measured "for health and safety reasons" with a spirit level. Once inside, a false ceiling/floor is lowered over us with holes for our heads to poke through into rows of miniature beds in a miniature dormitory. White-coated human-sized figures tuck us up and provide us with toys; a mysterious package arrives; then it's over. It's a brief episode of conceptual wackiness rather than anything deeply significant, but there are many, many worse holes to be in than these. Would-be audiences simply queue informally for the next available slot during the company's two-hour Saturday stints, noon-2pm and 5-7pm, but it is worth trying to avoid the times when their quiet eccentricities have to battle with live music just a few yards away in the same foyer.

BlackSKYwhite's presentation Bertrand's Toys was acclaimed on its Edinburgh outing last summer, garnering a Fringe First, and returns to these shows for a brief visit (it can also be seen in Leicester on Friday and Saturday). In an undefined space, in almost complete darkness, performers Marcella Soltan and Andrej Ivashnev conjure up a series of clockwork figures, dolls, puppets, heaven knows what, with jerking, spastic movements that speak of even greater unquiet outside the toybox. Pounding industrial music blares behind every twitch and totter, as Soltan performs unsettling fluttery hand-jives with tiny doll's hands protruding like weird deformations from her full-size sleeves, or Ivashnev (whose figures are generally a little more lumbering than the staccato movements of his jitterier colleague) seems to suffer a series of flailing death-throes as a featureless white mannequin.

The strategy of the company, which consists of the two performers and director Dmitri Ariupin, is to leave matters undefined so that the audience fills in the gaps and provides a context made out of our own fears and inner shadows; the company's Web site suggests vaguely that Sergeant Bertrand (never seen nor alluded to on stage) is a kind of universal nemesis to whom we are as flies to a wanton boy, which is no more than we sketch in for ourselves during the hour-long performance. I must admit I found it on the long side, due more to the encroaching tedium of familiarity than to an inability to endure so many of my own ghosts summoned up by the performers... but perhaps that is part of my delusion. In any case, a remarkable and frequently chilling presentation.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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