LONDON INTERNATIONAL MIME FESTIVAL 1:
The Red Zone/Quatre Mains/Don't Laugh It's My Life
Various venues, London
January, 1998

When Derevo's The Red Zone played in a midnight slot on last year's Edinburgh Fringe, audiences were divided between those who simply did not get it and those who got it in spades. On their presentation of the same show last week at the Purcell Room as one of the opening pieces at this year's London International Mime Festival, I am unconvinced that there is all that much to get.

After a sequence of deliberately crappy post-apocalyptic circus (riding a non-existent trapeze, failing to bend an iron bar, etc.), the pasty-faced Russian quintet move into a series of wordless and usually dimly lit episodes portraying evolution, gestation, love, power... the usual Human Condition preoccupations. The odd moment of serenity or deep emotion leaps out, but for the most part neither the content nor the presentation is particularly new or exciting. At one point, one of the clowns came into the audience and literally forced me to kick his arse... probably the most refreshingly direct bit of criticism I have ever done.

Andrew Dawson's and Jozef Houben's CVs include stage work with Mime Theatre Productions, Théâtre de Complicité, The Right Size and Wallace and Gromit. Their joint show Quatre Mains, presented for three nights at the ICA, was one of those so-simple-it's-brilliant strokes of genius. The title was entirely accurate: the performers were not Dawson and Houben, but their four hands (and occasionally the rest of their arms), on a raked tabletop.

Their palms and digits engaged in ballet, in Esther Williams choreography, in creating an entire menagerie on land and under water, and even in enacting an entire 1950s horror movie about giant spiders (probably). Throughout all this action, the only speech was the occasional incomprehensible syllable of vocalise on the taped soundtrack. They also performed a kind of percussion duel, during which epiphany struck: this was the theatrical equivalent of Steve Reich's clapping music performance stripped down to the ultimate simplicity, and continuing to generate strong, direct emotions and laughter in a mode of breathtaking intimacy.

The Festival's main show, however, is Don't Laugh It's My Life by the Told By An Idiot company (which continues at BAC until February 1). Since the company's first show in 1993, performers Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter and director John Wright have expertly mined the fertile seam of what, for want of a better term, could be called tragic clowning. They have added another three performers for this free adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe, in which the Tatter family is turned upside down by the arrival of a religiose parasite.

Wright and the company work gags out of a variety of cheesy pop standards, reanimate a clutch of antique verbal and physical gags and bring a delightfully skewed perspective to the entire proceedings. They are by now adept at turning on a sixpence from laughter to poignancy, and the second act not only includes the death of Gran at once comical and disturbingly grisly but eschews the deus ex machina resolution which tacks an implausibly happy ending onto the original play; here, the family's sudden reversal of fortune is left shockingly to stick.

Wright, one of the former mainstays of Trestle Theatre Company, puts three of his characters into half-masks; it is no coincidence that those who most directly engage our emotions are unmasked, most notably long-suffering wife and mother Georgia as played by Carmichael, a performer without peer in her generation and field for her seemingly innate ability to create an empathic bond with an audience.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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