Review from… Barbican Pit, London International Mime Festival; 16th January 2018
French company Bêtes de Foire, meaning beasts of the fair, perform Petit Théâtre de Gestes in the Pit of the brutalist Barbican Centre from 16th-20th January as part of London International Mime Festival 2018. Their characterful clunky and grumpy looking puppets perform beautiful actions alongside two scruffy and downtrodden looking performers, Laurent Cabrol and Elsa de Witte. Cabrol’s clowning personality carries the show, maintaining eye contact and thoughtful looks with viewers at every stage of his tricks, which make or break the humour continually.
The work’s mechanical, rough’n’ready aesthetic and intimate charm give both the design and performers their identity, inhabiting a tailor’s workshop where mannequins have masks and clothes call the shots. Puppets perform the physically athletic tricks and humans offer humble games with a charming allure. This clowning piece boasts few surprises, firmly sitting in the mould of an intimate circus show that takes the audience through a series of vignettes allowing the star to display his most practiced and revered circus skills one by one.
The appearance of a performing dog utterly delights viewers. However, whilst cute, it holds no firm position in the structure of the work, its relevance unclear. Also puzzling is a central pole at the front of the stage which appears to be part of the design. Perhaps it is meant to conjure the king pole of the tent where the show is more usually performed, but is restricts the view as figures often place directly behind it. With these puzzling niggles and a slow start out of the way, the real meat of the show – performer Cabrol – engages, beguiles and entertains. His oeuvre is unusual in the context of British circus theatre, showcasing subtle, non-acrobatic skills. Juggling from the floor, reversing a spectacle from on high into a condensed bounce composition at low level. Manipulations of hats, a half-sewn jacket or ping pong balls are down to earth tricks, fully explored here to find play, humour or climax in each moment.
One, two, then three hats roll around the body while the jolting rhythms of a hand sewing machine build tension. The rolling of a foot pedal and the snipping of scissors accompany a hatography dictated by humour as much as tricks. A fourth hat suspended from the ceiling progresses both the silliness and skill to a high point. In a nod to the grander spectacle of circus, a tightrope walker descends across the stage. This one, an articulated puppet, recalls a tradition of mimicking circus shows with puppets in the 19th Century. A metal stick man pedalling a penny-farthing is formed by an elegant shiny structure adorned with two heavy hands and a deeply creviced face. Watching the mechanics of the structure – allowing it to pedal itself, balance on the rope and travel forward by a counterweight beneath – is intoxicating. The rules built around the movements of a coat on a mannequin, which feeds more and more ping pong balls into Cabrol’s mouth, give agency to objects as well as puppets. The accumulation of coat poses develop from Cabrol’s physicality and embody both the personality of a clown and the choreography of a dancer. The complexity of the movement phrases is continually curtailed by comic interjections that allow no room for fluff.
The programming for London International Mime Festival is typically hit or miss, love or hate. It takes risks and premieres innovative, unusual and spine tingling work alongside works that crash and burn under this remit. Petit Théâtre de Gestes is neither of these, but is a strong, well-polished and well-structured piece that is safe. It doesn’t blow the mind, but it does create a world where viewers are entertained, skills are highly technical and polished, and beauty is found in the everyday.