Roll up, roll up! We may be in a black box studio theatre, but let’s imagine for a moment that we are inside un petit chapiteau – a little circus tent. What we encounter in this delightful show is un vrai cirque aux proportions reduites – everything you’d expect to see at the circus, but in smaller measures.
So, let’s get this show on the road – send in the clowns! Well, the clown… the magnificently long-faced and loose-limbed Laurent Cabrol is clown, and acrobat, and animal trainer. Except the only animal in this circus is a sweet little dog called Sokha who only obeys her mistress. Enter the no-nonsense Elsa de Witte who, when she is not teasing Sokha into action, is ‘offstage’ (that is, in view, behind the tiny circus ring) whizzing up costumes on her trusty Singer sewing machine. Cue some magnificent duets for sewing machine and juggler – yes, Laurent Cabrol again. In fact, juggling is clearly his prime skill – and what a delight it is to see all the classic tricks (which he can clearly do very well) deconstructed and replayed to us with knowing humour: a hat juggling sequence in which the hats take off on their own trajectory; a mouth-juggling sequence in which he seems to be gobbling up balls into ever-puffing hamster cheeks; a magnificent eight-ball sequence with diminishing returns, that ends with Laurent juggling invisible balls completely convincingly. He is also an ace eccentric dancer, following in the noble tradition of silent movie stars such as Keaton or Chaplin. Meanwhile the backstage bric-a-brac of costumes and props is gently animated by Elsa, including a gorgeous scene in which a coat on a tailor’s dummy turns into an invisible man moving mannequin. This onstage-offstage play throughout is really lovely. Sokha the dog can play this game too: we see her dozing ‘offstage’, and seemingly reluctantly peeping through the doorway at the top of the steps before a very slow entrance ‘onstage’ to take up position as a sleepy sea-lion, head on paws on the podium. What a clown!
The three live performers are complemented by a number of gorgeously wonky puppets and automata. There’s the life sized one-man-band, which is like one of those lovely tin toys that bangs a drum with its rapid arm movements – only 100 times bigger, and additionally playing a concertina. At one point, a high wire is set up, and a puppet trick-cyclist whirs along it to the accompaniment of Elsa de Witte’s musical saw. Here and throughout the show, the relationship between sound and action is forged with great skill and inventiveness – a mix of interesting instrumentation (such as the saw!), Foley, and odd-bod sampling. There’s a marvellous visual and musical rhythm to the piece: every physical action from human, dog, puppet, or object is complemented beautifully by the composed music, found sound, or silence.
The pace of the piece is well measured for the most part, although there is a flurry of activity at the end of the show that feels a little odd. In particular, a beautifully executed waltzing puppets scene (Elsa inside an extraordinary costume that morphs into the two dancing figures) comes slightly late in the running order. But this is a minor gripe – all in all, this is a delightful show, playing with the tropes of circus with wit and intelligence, beautifully conceived and executed. One of the highlights of my Mime Festival 2018.