Theatre des Bouffes du Nord / Jos Houben & Marcello Magni: Marcel

Oh what joy! Such clever clowning! What skilled Lazzi! In Marcel, the art of the gag lives on in objects that fight back (umbrellas, fold-up seats, cigarettes that won’t light), endless entrances and exits through invisible doors, and raincoats dragged on and off and inadvertently shared. But it is more, so much more. It is laugh-aloud funny, yet in parts so poignant that tears prick your eyes. The whole world is here in this marvellous onstage world: human endeavour, success and failure, friendship, love, ageing. It doesn’t get easier, life. Yet still, on it goes, relentlessly. Do we measure up to what it takes?

Marcello Magni and Jos Houben are a classic comedy duo. One is tall and lean, the other is short and sturdy. One is in charge, setting the other evermore difficult tasks. ‘Wait here’ says Houben, and reappears moments later in a different outfit: a dark suit, jogging pants and shades, a doctor’s white coat. It is, of course, the little guy who is being tested –  although for what we never quite know. Clown license renewal? A Matter of Life and Death style assessment at heaven’s door?

Marcello Magni as Marcel (a name suspiciously similar to his own) is poked and prodded and measured, running and jumping not through hoops but up and down and under and around the wooden slide occupying centre-stage. He finds a thousand ways to get on, and fall off of, the slide; he hat-juggles; he mock-ice-skates along a suddenly slippery floor. Whenever alone, he keeps up a barrage of sotto voce Italian, reminiscing about his family and his life ‘mi ricorda, mi ricorda…’

The minimal set also includes an empty metal door frame, the site for an endless number of plays on the classic mime entrance. We are brought into the play right from the start, as Marcel questions the ludicrous opening and shutting of a non-existent creaky door: ’They’ll get it. It’s theatre. It’s a mime festival…’ The audience are an important part of the action throughout – fed sweets by Marcel, invited to be complicit in the hiding of damage to the equipment – and all moments of interaction are handled with aplomb, as you’d expect of these seasoned performers.

Often the lights are bright, the action a fast-paced medley of gags. But there are passages with a different feel: a lighting change turns the backdrop curtain a deep velvety maroon, and the figure of Marcel stands at the top of the ‘slide’ with an enormous shadow rearing behind him as his circus act is announced with a drum roll (from Houben on snare, below). Later, the backdrop turns midnight blue as Marcel, now a Pierrot with a newspaper ruff, reaches for the cardboard moon above him. A moon which becomes a harp, which becomes a gondola – all in the twinkle of an eye. In between these scenes, a wonderfully surreal pantomime horse moment, as the ‘horse’ (Houben sporting a horse-head mask, Magni with a fine long tail) tries to climb up the slide.

The ultimate test set for Marcel: can he keep a minute’s silence? Will the audience help or hinder? I’ll leave you to imagine the outcome.

Marcel, created and performed by Houben and Magni, is presented under the auspices of Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. It comes to London after a long run in Paris, and it has the feel of a well bedded-in show: everything onstage is timed perfectly, balanced beautifully. Of course, these two bring to the stage not just the experience of making and playing this show, but decades of working together in Complicite (they are both founder members) and beyond. Set and costume design (Oria Puppo) and lighting design (Philippe Vialette) are just right, elegantly serving the stage action.

The perfect show to start the London International Mime Festival – a reminder that top-notch physical comedy is alive and kicking in 2016.

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.