Monday 24 January 2011

Dextrous and daft

Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl, Barbican, London

London International Mime Festival

Productivity must be rather difficult when your place of work is a metaphor, so spare a thought of the two pen-pushing clowns stuck in an office at the end of human civilisation in Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl.

Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford play the last two employees of Convenience Foods, left with little to do as the company (quite literally) collapses around them. Into the resultant cracks creeps the natural world: shrubs spring from filing cabinets, vines climb the walls and wild animals run, um, wild.

In the middle of this menagerie, Sobelle and Ford try – and often fail – to co-exist. She, all a gangle, desperately seeks his affirmation. He, obsessive-compulsive and increasingly sociopathic, is best left to his own devices. From their niggling battles grows something more primal: simultaneously a fight for territorial control and a mating ritual that winds up in a rhythmically rocking dumpster.

Sobelle and Ford are dextrous and daft performers and there’s a well-honed chemistry between them. Their unseen glares across the room, alternating between annoyance and longing, are delightful. They’re helped by a chalk-and-cheese opposition that ensures satisfying personality clashes. As Ford silently savours her Wotsits, stripping each of flavour with her tongue, a distracted Sobelle moves from a huffing rage to a quiet envy.

You’re always aware, however, that each set piece has been constructed as a routine and strung together rather arbitrarily. So we start with Sobelle versus fly – a hilarious, if staple, piece of physical comedy – before Ford versus rodent and, finally, both versus grizzly bear. With an escalating formula replacing real development, Flesh and Blood… offers more as metaphor than it does in performance.

Clearly, there are environmental and evolutionary concerns, often drawing on the old human nature documentary routine. Beneath the surface, however, it nails the innate pointlessness of human existence and the structure of civilisation, in a way that only clowns can manage, shattering those things we hold central to our daily lives – profit margins, relationships, ambitions – by holding them against a bigger picture. Inspired by the town abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster, which has since been under nature’s occupation, Flesh and Blood… forces us to ask to what end all this ultimately aims. What, in real terms, gets left behind?

But it does so with a sense of fun, ridiculing mankind’s absurd attempts at dignity. Beyond that, however, there’s warmth; a suggestion that futility is just fine. In the end, a bloodied Sobelle clutches Ford’s corpse and dies in front of an idyllic woodland tableau. Birds hang from the ceiling; deer gather round; hills roll into the distance and autumnal leaves fall and bury the bodies. The echo, whether conscious or not, is of Kane’s Blasted, only transferred from Hell’s void to Disney’s wonderland. ‘A post-apocalyptic Eden,’ say the programme notes, that suggests, whether with or without us, everything will be just fine.

Till 29 January 2011. The London International Mime Festival runs till 30 January 2011.


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