Mother –  The Barbican, London

Creator: Peeping Tom

Director: Gabriela Carrizo

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Nightmares have never looked so beautiful than in Mother, the new show by Peeping Tom, the cult dance company from Belgium. On the wide stage of the Barbican, dancers are staccato lightning-bolts electrified by grief and unrequited love; they come together to produce wondrous and shocking tableaux of loss.

In the sparse programme notes, director Gabriela Carrizo says that the show isn’t ‘about one mother, but several mothers’. However, often the show is not about mothers at all, but wider family dynamics and its dense storytelling makes more sense when you realise that Mother is the middle show of a trilogy, with Father premiering in 2014 and Child to come in 2019. At least two mothers appear in this show, but the narrative always remains secondary to the images that are created onstage, in the municipal and impersonal museum designed by Amber Vandenhoeck.

The museum is run by Brandon (Brandon Lagaert), and upon the walls are portraits of his family and his ancestors. And it seems that his family is to be extended when he announces that his partner is pregnant, but when she gives birth the baby is taken away from her as soon as it’s born. It moves into an incubator, and the parents can only watch at a distance. Meanwhile, the museum still opens to the public and we see tourists in their rainproof ponchos come and go to the refrain of ‘the museum is about to close’.

Although Mother is here as part of the London International Mime Festival, there is dialogue in this production and, while its genre is difficult to define, Mother is more dance than mime, more Live Art than theatre. There’s almost something quite 1990s about the production with nods to the iconic Pina Bausch, and, towards the end, even DV8. It seems out of time and out of joint, but this adds to its powerful aesthetic especially when confusion and hope are played out upon the floor of the museum.

A nurse (Yi-Chun Liu), wearing a bloodstained uniform jerks across the stage, unusually long arms flailing behind her. Her dance is a macabre tarantella, a folk dance punctured by convulsions as if a poisonous spider has bitten the performer.  Liu contorts her body in the same way as some women did in the great hysteria epidemic of the 19th-century. She bends backward as if her spine is made of jelly and this move is echoed by the other main characters. The virtuosity of the dancers is always impressive, and one performer’s backflips left many of the audience members with their hearts in their mouths.

The quality of the imagery is almost too excessive at times, with blood and people pouring out of paintings and hidden doors, and with children disappearing into corridors of light.  Indeed, these spectacles would be the stuff of bad dreams if it weren’t for the humour that often runs alongside these terrifying images. It’s a shame, then, that this humour is just not funny enough. An early scene of a woman playing – or is it drowning? – in water while the sound effects of splashing are made by another performer in the onstage recording booth goes on too long . Likewise the dance that accompanies a scene of an art-theft seems misjudged and juvenile, undercutting any tension. Peeping Tom work best when they represent bleakness and hopelessness.

At only 80 minutes long, Mother’s flaws are easily forgotten, and if the narrative is difficult to follow at times, the reward comes as a feast for the eyes. It may be the most bizarre show currently running in London, but this bizarre is beautiful.

Runs until 27 January 2018 | Image: Oleg Degtiarov

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Beautifully bizarre

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