PLAN B
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1
Opened 16 January, 2004
*****

Overheard on the way out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon Woman (slightly wheedling): "That was quite good, James"; Man (with the petulance of a nine-year-old): "It was rubbish and boring." Well, whoever you are, James, you have the soul of a breezeblock. Toulouse-based Compagnie 111's Mime Festival offering, Plan B, was indeed quite good. That's "quite" in the sense of entirely, utterly, transcendentally.

The first phase doesn't promise much. A quartet of men slide repeatedly down a brushed-steel plane inclined at 45 degrees. Their paces and poses vary, but it's fundamentally a one-note riff. Then it builds: little ledges and trapdoors begin to appear and disappear, and the performers tumble around the plane in a slow-motion gymnastic routine. From there, it just keeps getting stranger and more wondrous.

The plane moves to the vertical, but the performers brace against each other and move around on it as if it were just another floor; much later, it falls flat, and the horizontal image is video-projected on to the back wall, so that the players appear to be leaping and spinning in air when in fact they're throwing shapes on the ground. It's as if an M.C. Escher print had come alive, with folk casually strolling around in planes all at right angles to one another. The first simple demonstration of gravity has slowly built to a kind of physical jazz that affirms, suspends and somehow syncopates gravity by turns.

The brilliantly versatile design of Aurelien Bory (who also has a nice line as the gangling comic butt in performance) is augmented by Stephane Ley's sound design. It seems as if the entire plane is miked up, so that clumps and thuds come to provide a rhythm to the proceedings. In the several ball-juggling sequences (although these are to conventional juggling what the rest of the show is to conventional mime), the sound of the balls bouncing builds up into polyrhythms, further embroidered with echo and phasing. One of the "floor" sequences is accompanied by deliberately clichéd martial-arts movie sound effects.

There's a great joy to Plan B. It's not just that we share in the cunning of the visions and stunts, but that amid all this playfulness, profound and basic feelings are conveyed. There are things in this world, like gravity and dimension, that are immutable; we can fantasise around them, we can pretend, and in our imaginations we can soar; but at bottom, the reality is every bit as wondrous too. This is apparently the second part of a planned trilogy. I can't wait.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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