Like a saccharine parody of the comedy comperes of the Eighties, Martin Gent croons his between-the-acts links in front of an improvised wine-red curtain. Around him, the cool white hall is crammed with cabaret-style chairs and tables, to which more than 100 people have brought their own food and wine. A rough-painted display of dismembered bodies in primary colour outline fringes the audience. 'It looks like a hospital ward that's been decorated by the patients,' says Debbie, an actress who is there to watch friends do some New Age clowning. But the overriding atmosphere is so mammothly unthreatening you can almost hear the egos whistling with relief.
'We are about being cosy,' admits Gent, who runs Arthaus with Sophie Mathias and Martin Coles. 'It's only in this kind of atmosphere that you can possibly try out ideas - where people aren't going to slash you in the face with all sorts of criticism.' 'We never advertise the individual people taking part in any event,' adds Coles. 'As soon as you start looking down a bill and deciding whether to come or not, you have the wrong kind of atmosphere.'
Up on stage, one of the individuals has kicked off the gig with an improvised movement piece called 'Parlour'. She begins with a bewigged t'ai chi routine in a long black coat and ends revolving in front of projected film of her windswept face on a hill. 'We lower buildings from the sky using hooks from satellites,' she intones. Not all the bap-chomping punters are convinced. 'That was indulgent wank,' mutters one.
Gent, Coles and Mathias haven't helped themselves by calling their offbeat open-spot Arthaus. If they'd set out to label themselves as gaggingly effete they could hardly have done a better job. But what they've come up with is not as luvvie as they make it sound. They set out three years ago in rebellion against the money-up-front mentality that makes experimental performance work so hard to stage. 'When we first started, no money changed hands at all,' explains Coles. Now Arthaus has attracted subsidy from the London Arts Board and the International Mime Festival. 'This means we can actually pay our performers,' says Coles. 'To perform in most other Fringe venues in London, performers like these would have to stump up 200-odd quid a night. And they'd never get an audience like this.'
The hall relapses to the hubbub of actorly chat and the gentle hiss of opened bottles of Pils, as Gent introduces the genuinely odd Cris Cheek in 'SFX, the misprint'. Cheek embodies the spirit of the place. He's a voice performer (the arty flip-side of Bobby McFerrin) and specialises in unique playlets written to celebrate or open buildings. His last piece was a one-off for the courtroom in the middle of the Old Town Hall in Oxford. Here he climbs about the hall like a spider, uttering vocal jerks and fragments of speech and lighting himself with a hand-held lantern. For a moment, even the complacent part of the audience is kicked into bewildered laughter. Now you're talking, I think, even though he isn't.
The next Arthaus is at 7.30pm 3 Feb, Turtle Key Arts Centre, 74 Farm Lane, London SW6, and thereafter on the first Thursday of each month, pounds 3. Bring your own food and drink. For information about attending or taking part, call 071-241 3209. Cris Cheek can be booked on 071-474 5454
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