Arts Preview: Bring on the belly laughs

COMEDY The Umbilical Brothers are about to give your inner child a little Thwak
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The Independent Culture
THE AUSTRALIAN double-act The Umbilical Brothers, Shane Dundas and David Collins, are bringing their hit show Thwak to London. "Thwak is a human cartoon. We do throw in a torch song (Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain") - otherwise it would be like watching Bugs Bunny for more than an hour. You would go insane," says Dundas (far right), though it may be this very childishness that has hooked audiences around the world.

Since they performed their second show, Heaven by Storm, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1995, winning the Critics' Choice Award for comedy and a Perrier nomination, their original style of stand-up - mime mixed with vocal sound- effects - has elevated them to international stardom. The duo became widely known for their "vocal acrobatics" and won a Bafta when they created and recorded the character voices and sound-effects - including the noise of tractors - for the animated children's series Maisy in 1998. They also won a Bafta for their BBC show Umbilical TV, and worked with the Oscar-winning Aardman Animations (which made Wallace & Gromit).

In 1999, the Umbilical Brothers performed Thwak off-Broadway for a year, with appearances on The David Letterman Show and Tonight with Jay Leno, returning to New York in 2003 for a further off-Broadway season. Last year, they took Thwak to Japan. "We got rid of a lot of the language, which takes away much of the subtlety of the show, but we sprinkled in a bit of Japanese, which both impressed and confused them," Dundas says.

The pair met at drama school in 1988, in a jazz-dance class ("Dave kicked me in the nose and broke it," Dundas recalls), creating the first show in 1994. "It has been a long time. That is how familiar we are with each other. There is almost a psychic link between us," says Dundas. "You can become a bit like a married couple, especially with such a frantic touring schedule. So we try to allow each other some space and then bring our ideas together to create something new.

"The shows continue to evolve like creatures with their own minds," explains Dundas. They are currently working on a new show, The Rehearsal.

Thwak reworks some classic Umbilical Brothers material for its story of Hans and Klaus, whose relationship is based on sibling rivalry and "a power struggle over the microphone".

"When the American producers wanted us to perform in the States after catching us at Edinburgh," Dundas recalls, "we needed to strengthen the narrative between the two characters for American audiences. They like a storyline. It is different in Edinburgh; we could go more with the flow." Thwak's sound-effects include chainsaw decapitation, a sizzling barbecue, bacon frying, dogs, explosions, and horses galloping underwater, "all done with our mouths in the microphones, in concert with the audience's imagination".

The Umbilical Brothers are looking forward to coming to London. "We can have a bit of fun with Thwak. There is a certain amount of self-parody that we can get away with, which is not possible in New York," Dundas says. "If you still have an inner child, it will be wrenched out during the show."

`Thwak', Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0870 737 0337;

www.sadlers wells.com), today to 19 Feb

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