Creators and Directors: Laurent Cabrol and Elsa de Witte
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Playing as part of the London International Mime Festival, Bêtes de Foire, at the Barbican’s Pit theatre, doesn’t exceed anyone’s expectations of what mime entails, but this small circus show from France is executed with such old-world charm that it’s hard not to be swept away.
The London International Mime Festival has been with us since 1977 – indeed, it is the longest running theatre festival in the city – and continually challenges those who think that mime consists only of clowns like Marcel Marceau struggling with imaginary walls. Mime also incorporates physical theatre, puppetry and live art, all linked by the absence of verbal language. While other shows in the festival are experimental and ground-breaking, Bêtes de Foire, translated as Circus Freaks, succeeds because it is so old-fashioned.
It would be a disservice to call any of the circus-members here freaks; we have Laurent Cabrol, the clown, Elsa de Witte, the puppeteer, and their dog, Sokha, who must be the laziest mutt in show-business. For just over an hour, the three of them amuse and, occasionally, wow the audience.
We enter the theatre in near darkness with Cabrol and de Witte lighting the way to our seats with torches. A small red tile circle is our circus ring for the evening, and behind it are shelves that we would be more likely to encounter backstage. On or around these overflowing shelves are suit jackets and puppet heads, drums and hats, sewing machines and mannequins, all of which are used in the performance.
It would be a shame to reveal all their tricks but there is some impressive and, often very funny, juggling of balls and hats. There is also some beautiful puppetry, delicately lit, especially that of the puppet who dares to cycle along the tightrope. Cabrol’s clown is engaging, despite resembling Mr. Bean at times with his splayed hands and disdainful facial expressions. And although the British are sometimes snooty about Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, we should remember that he is probably the most famous clown we’ve ever had in this country, and he is one of our most successful exports. However, Cabrol has more circus skills than his English brother, and he is very likeable, particularly when his tricks don’t quite go to plan.
While de Witte is often the straight man to Cabrol’s clowning, she is responsible for most of the puppet-play, and at one point she dons a dress that has puppets sewn into it, and by bending over she sends two figures dancing around the stage to the amazement of the audience. In comparison Sokha, the dog, does very little, but how funny that little is!
Within the show’s Gothic aesthetic, there are also nods to the Absurdists and even to the cabarets of the Weimar Republic, but there is nothing lewd here, and the children in the audience certainly appeared to enjoy Cabrol’s slightly more grotesque tricks involving ping pong balls.
Bêtes de Foire is short but sweet and evokes nostalgia for a more innocent age. You may well see better juggling at the Cirque du Soleil, but sometimes intimacy is worth more than spectacle.
Runs until 20 January 2018 | Image: Lionel Pesqué