Arts: Without breathing a word

The London International Mime Festival opens tomorrow. Watch this face...
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The Independent Culture
"NO ONE said it was forbidden to talk just because we're in a mime festival," insists Alice Power, co-director with Alice Purcell of A Special Offer, which opens at the Young Vic Studio on Monday as part of the London International Mime Festival. "There are whole sentences as well as singing in this piece, but the work focuses on very small details."

Set inside a fitted "Buckingham" bedroom suite, in a Sharps furniture showroom, a display couple go through the motions of a relationship, complete with minute duvet readjustments, table-lamp protocol and knowing silences. To research the show, the Alices spent a week dropping in on friends' bedrooms first thing in the morning to observe their bedroom rituals. "I did make some strange discoveries," says Power. "One person's partner has been waking them up every morning for years by the sound and smell of cutting an orange." The show was inspired by the flavour of Raymond Carver (the American author of Short Cuts). "It often seems as if there's nothing going on in his short stories," says Power, "and yet there is masses and masses going on at the same time."

"Our remit is very broad, and the boundaries can be blurry," explains the Mime Festival director, Helen Lannaghan, "but the emphasis is always on what the audience sees, rather than what they hear." Although there is always a smattering of performers with the unfortunately coy-sounding names of Euro-Teletubbies (Pep Bou, Paulo Nani, Nola Rae), the festival is robustly flexible. Now in its 21st year, it incorporates physical and visual theatre, installation art, circus, dance, puppetry and vaudeville, as well as slapstick clowning. There is a screening of Marcel Carne's menacing 1943 pierrot epic, Les Enfants du Paradis, the return of the macabre Russian master-clowners Derevo, Bou's bubble-blowing artistry, and a chance to catch Faulty Optic's hellish micro-mechanicals by live- relay video projection.

"British artists tend to feel very nervous with no text," suggests Lannaghan, "whereas French performers seem to have the confidence to find something beautiful and artistic without the need to breathe a word. Then, if something needs to be said, and flapping your arms seems like a real effort, it's better just to say it," she concedes.

The Franco-American duo BP Zoom are more likely to communicate by playing the spoons. Crouched behind the wheel of a curvy Fiat Cinquecento, the portly Mr B (Bernard Collins) purses his lips and peers through his bottle- glasses with the air of a fat gourmande in a sidecar, while his 6ft 8in chum, Mr P (Philippe Martz), keeps a lookout for fresh hazards. BP Zoom (named after a Fifties petrol brand used in mopeds) are straight from the cabaret/ music-hall tradition. "The characters are based on our natural proclivities," admits Collins, who, by some sacrilegious quirk, finds himself performing inside Winston Churchill's frock-coat. "The comedy comes from the different way we see the world: I'm right-handed left- brained, and Philippe is truly cack-handed." Since all the action is contained within the car, the audience have to pay attention to all the tiny gestures. "We try to do as much as possible, with as little as possible," says Collins.

A+B=X, a dance-based piece from the Swiss choreographer Gilles Jopin, uses a trio of synchronised bodies, creeping contortively across the floor in ultra- slowed-down extenuated moves. Super-8 coloured projections light up the mesmeric naked shapes, so that you're not always sure which bit of a body you're looking at. A bare, industrial sound-track by Franz Treichler is equally pared-down, as a snatch of film showing the body- artist Franko B with his mouth sewn shut flickers proceedings to a close. "I'm trying to stretch out the relativity of time," explains Jopin, "the sense that the same amount of time can last hours or be very quick, depending on your own perception." The piece has so far been rejected by all the usual dance venues. "Dance-programmers don't like things they can't classify, or work that's too engaged, so I'm really grateful that the Mime Festival is so open," Jopin says.

Neil Thomas, an Australian artist who spent 16 days living in a Belgian shop-window this summer, finds doing his shows like "being in a pressure cooker - a massive experience, like going to the moon or the Antarctic". This time based in the Natural History Museum, Thomas will be found daily in a glass case in the human biology section with other azure-painted bald-headed Blue Boys. Some are mannequins but it won't be easy to spot the flesh from the glass fibre, as they are all intricately animated.

The Blue Boys will be observing the punters closely - mute throughout - which is the way Helen Lannaghan prefers it. "It's so powerful and strong watching something in silence," she says. "I'll be in a show, the tension rising, and I'm sitting there praying, don't break the magic, please don't say anything."

The Blue Boys, Natural History Museum 9-24 Jan; `A Special Offer', Young Vic Studio 11-23 Jan; BP Zoom, Purcell Room 13-17Jan; Gilles Jopin, ICA 19-21 Jan. The Mime Festival begins Saturday, until 24 January (0171- 637 5661)