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We Missed You – Voila! Festival, Cockpit Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Creators: Julia Masli and Viggo Venn

Many theatre companies and performers have had to make a sharp pivot to digital content this year and despite only a few days’ notice provided for this latest lockdown, many venues have been able to respond far quicker than before. The Voila! Europe 2020 festival due to take place at the Cockpit Theatre has now become a Zoom event with clowning specialists Julia Msali and Viggo Venn well prepared to take their show We Missed You online.

Part pre-recorded video, part live Zoom session from the performers’ home, We Missed You is inspired by Commedia dell’arte in which characters Harlequino and Pierrot escape the pages of a book being read by Msali and Venn. The clowns engage in a series of improvised performances on the streets of London, taking different bits of their act around Lambeth, Brixton and Westminster.

If you are a fan of the prank show like Beadle’s About or Trigger Happy TV, where unsuspecting members of the public are drawn into a comedy sketch, then We Missed You is for you. Across 45-minutes the leads establish six scenarios in which the main aim is to encourage at least one passer-by to join in with their game for which they provide live links and segues.

The most entertaining section comes at the end when the pair turn an underpass on the River Thames into the Portal of Dance. Armed with a disco ball, flashing lights and pop music, they encourage plenty of people to join in, building not only a sense of community with those they meet on the day of filming, but also creating an extended opportunity for the Zoom audience to dance along at home.

Most of the other sections, however, are a more passive viewing experience, in which the idea of performance is overridden by the goal of interaction. Several of the sections have a narrative of sorts – a stallholder losing a tomato or a strongman needing to hold up a building – but how that translates into theatre is less clear. In every case, someone engages eventually but, while seeing a stranger join Venn in pretending to support the concrete structure is a ‘win’, this feels like facilitation rather than performance.

Similarly, watching someone dressed as a tomato being chased around a market may be amusing but the initial wackiness of the scenario does not evolve into storytelling. Although the genuine stall holders and traders start to comment, nothing else happens in this long sketch. Many of the videos capture reactions from the gathering public as they take photos as their own memento of the event, and while that is gratifying for the performers, it makes for a strange and remote viewing experience at home.

Both Venn and Masli are welcoming hosts, delighted to engage in whatever way they can but it is difficult to ascertain what the live show would have been like. Would members of the audience be drawn into improvisation or are there prepared sequences that lean more heavily on its Commedia dell’arte roots? A lot of thought and care has clearly gone into the technical develop of We Missed You and its rapid transition to an online experience using film and backdrops to create different effects, but the real audience for this are the people on the streets of London who saw it live. Maybe you just had to be there.

 Reviewed on 15 November 2020

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