Christmas is when the Southbank Centre rediscovers its raison d'être: this year, the foyer features a giant "melting igloo" in which films about Arctic explorers are screened, while the stage of the Festival Hall is festooned with instruments of a sort never seen there before: giant marimbas and xylophones of wood, plastic, glass; oil cans, rubbish bins and builders' chutes; bellows, thunder-machines, and every kind of drum. Three old-style Hoovers sit centre-stage.
Enter a man with a double-bass case, followed by four more: gingerly at first, then with increasing vehemence, they rub and slap their cases, building up a mean and catchy rhythm. It's comic in a subfusc way, reminiscent of a Deep South oompah band caught on scratchy vinyl. It's also vintage Stomp, the begetters of the show, who are here after conquering Sydney Opera House.
When the rubbing and slapping is over, a tiny man emerges from one case toting a truncheon-like piece of tubing, and is joined by others similarly armed. Cue a burst of polyphony as they hammer the floor. They are followed by men with hosepipe saxes who blow a lugubrious tune. So far, every instrument has had only one note; the cleverness lies in the orchestration. Gradually, we're made aware of other musicians on the gantries above: the whole thing is like a series of gentle conjuring tricks, where nothing outstays its welcome.
As the comedy becomes acrobatic and surreal, with everything from water-coolers to lavatory plumbing made to yield up music, one realises one is in a tradition going back to George Antheil, whose propeller orchestra went down, in Twenties New York, like a lead balloon. One also remembers cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung, who on this very stage explored the musical potential of Hoovers. The programme acknowledges inspiration from the Marx Brothers, Mozart's glass harmonica, and Marlene Dietrich's musical saw, but what strikes me is how many of Stomp's scrapheap inventions replicate instruments found in the Basque Country, Africa, Tibet, Java, and Vietnam.
Put this troupe in white tie and tails and present them as avant-gardists, and they'd be the intellectual toast of the town. Thankfully, they're a raggle-taggle bunch, and at the end of this unforgettable evening, the audience just doesn't want to let them go.
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