Snails and Ketchup is a wordless retelling of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, just one man (Ramesh Meyyappan) and his pianist (Toh Tze Chin) conjuring up the before-its-time tale of social protest and environmental concern as the son of a dysfunctional aristocratic family defies convention and protests against his lot by taking to a life lived in the trees. It is presented by Iron-Oxide and Universal Arts under the auspices of the Made in Scotland programme.
It’s a purely physical and visual performance, but it comes with a written synopsis given out to audience members before the start of the show, which set a small alarm bell ringing for me: surely a visual theatre performance should be able to tell its tale without this aid?
The problem is that the story is a convoluted one, and the performer/deviser has decided to focus strongly on linear narrative rather than working thematically and developing other aspects of the tale. Ramesh Meyyappan is a skilled performer, and I have read Calvino’s novella, but the narrative twists and turns rapidly, and it is (I have to confess, having spurned the synopsis) difficult to follow. The brutal father, nervous mother, mischievous twin sister, and ‘baron’ himself are all played by Ramesh, who has developed a personal style of illustrative mime that seems to have incorporated elements of signing and perhaps also of eurythmy. A concern for me was that this all keeps him frantically busy throughout and there is little stillness or space to breathe in the piece (ironically, as the baron’s stated aim in taking to the trees is to find a space where he can breathe) and for this audience member anyway, too much time was spent trying to work out what was happening rather than really relaxing into the show.
The piece is directed by circus/physical theatre stalwart Josette Bushell-Mingo, with aerial choreography by Jennifer Patterson and Lucy Deacon, so I had expectations of a high level of aerial circus work, particularly as on entering the venue we saw the stage set with a forest of ropes hanging down. However, this is not realised, and although the rope work that there is is clearly and competently presented, it is not an aerial performance to thrill. On the positive side, design, lighting and the cleverly-integrated video projection are all of a high quality, and add a strong visual dimension to the show. The live piano accompaniment is also very lovely, adding a silent film quality to the action.
Ultimately, Ramesh Meyyappan is a competent and skilled performer, but not (for me anyway) a riveting presence onstage, and I thus feel that the piece would be stronger if there were other performers to carry some of the burden of the storytelling. Snails and Ketchup is a work in development that has interesting aspects – but has a way to go yet.