Waltz of the Hommelettes – The Barbican, London

Creator and Director: Patrick Sims

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Of all the cultural events a new year brings January in London is really dedicated to two important fringe celebrations; while the Vaults Festival under the arches of Waterloo begins its eight-week run shortly, with over 40 years of experience the London International Mime Festival is always the first big event of the year. As well as performances from new and established mime companies, this year the festival also welcomes the return of Patrick SimsWaltz of the Hommelettes for just three performances at the Barbican.

Sims’ show, which first premiered in 2016, is something of a curio, set in and around a giant cuckoo clock where a number of folk and fairy tales are enacted. Jointly inspired by the Brothers Grimm short stories The Elves as well as the work of French philosopher Jacques Marie Émile Lacan, Waltz of the Hommelettes is atmospheric and bizarre, but also fascinating in its use of puppetry, masks and mime.

Drawing on an oral culture of storytelling, a mother bird with a naturalistic mask head spins yarn as the audience take their seats. With rapid movement and visual effects, she creates a nest in which to house four eggs as the wait to hatch, but a secret replacement soon pushes out its rivals and greedily demands its mother’s attention. This story, disbursed throughout the show, has a strange supernatural quality, an over-large baby bird puppet that is full of cruel and self-satisfied personality, with a passing resemblance to the creature from Little Shop of Horrors.

Linking to Lacan’s theories on ego creation and fragmenting self-image, egg symbols appear throughout the show, as well as repeated references to cuckoos – in the music, written on a blunderbuss and in the cuckoo clock – which suggests a displacement for the creatures in each of the stories being presented. Motherhood too is a key theme seen in the baby bird scenario but also in an elf-based tale about a stolen human baby replaced by a monster, their reunion rendered in silhouette.

Elves also appear to help an impoverished shoemaker by magically constructing his footwear overnight (the most famous of the pieces on offer), the proprietor and his wife wearing giant masks that exaggerate their weariness and reference their German folk origins created by Josephine Biereye who also skilfully performs as puppeteer along with Sims and Richard Penny.

The busy little elves helping cobblers, freeing deer from man traps and stealing babies are tiny marionettes that are as cute as they are impish. Biereye’s creations are pixie-sized and spirited, regularly dancing and playing as they work, but their torso is a skeleton with goat legs and devil horns that imply something of the underworld despite their good works.

In Sims’ clock-based set, the collective effect is fairly seamless, doors open by themselves, objects rotate, the mechanics are impressive. Even when the creators clamber into view, the creation of setting, tone and atmosphere, as well as, the clever mixing of masks and string-puppets to relay the story works very effectively.

There are a few loose ends that don’t quite translate to the audience including a gun-toting rabbit who stalks the action hoping to kill a cuckoo. It’s humorous but never meaningful, while a hint of Christian symbolism with a manger and three wise gnomes doesn’t develop into anything more solid. Pushing the boundaries of mime, engaging and technically skilled, Waltz of the Hommelettesis a strange study on the nature of storytelling,

Runs until 19 January 2019 | Image: Emmanuel Dubost

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