OFF WEST END / Keeping it in the family

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The Independent Culture
You will search a long while through the shows on offer at the London International Mime Festival before you find white-faced clowns descending imaginary stairs. In fact, you may even miss them, so far has the definition of 'mime' expanded from the narrow confines it used to occupy. Many of the shows at this festival, far from being silent, are fairly noisy; neither are they frothy entertainment - some deal with topical, difficult subjects.

None more so than Black Mime Theatre whose EDR (Lilian Baylis, EC1) focuses on the prison system and family values. Directed by Denise Wong, this movement-based show displays all the virtues and some of the limitations of physical theatre. It is imaginative, performed with agility by the cast, and it makes an impact. The questions it raises are important and urgent, the only drawback of the style is that it encourages rather generalised answers.

While the publicity suggests that EDR (standing for Earliest Date of Release) offers a detailed look behind bars, in fact the show spends most time and energy investigating the backgrounds of the prisoners. Their case histories are neatly interleaved with snapshots of prison life which effectively suggest the febrile atmosphere in the cells. But the lion's share of the piece is devoted to exploring their childhoods, revealing the deprivation that appears to have contributed to their criminal behaviour.

There's Junior, who fell in with drug-dealers partly because of his feelings of inadequacy in the face of his exacting father, and Angel, whose adoptive parents couldn't cope with her emotional difficulties. Richie, meanwhile, ignored by his mother and left by his girlfriend, eventually exploded and committed rape. This is all strong stuff, and the individual stories are economically and well told, using snippets of dialogue, movement and song. The problem with the jaunty, economic style is that it leaves little room for the detailed and subtle analysis that this subject demands. It seems unlikely that Black Mime Theatre wish to suggest that the sins of the sons and daughters can be laid simply at the parents' feet, but in this pared-down style, that is the broad message that comes across.

Trestle Theatre has done a lot of pioneering work in convincing audiences that mimed and masked shows could be used to tackle serious subjects. For Little Victories (Cochrane, WC1), the company teams up with Quicksilver Theatre for Children to present a show for audiences of six years and over. Rather than look at the problems of childhood from outside, as EDR does, Little Victories presents children with a staged version of the biggest problems they may encounter - birth and death.

The issues are dealt with skilfully through the story of Tony (Damon Shaw) who experiences both extremes simultaneously, when the birth of his baby sister coincides with the death of his young friend, Josie, from cancer. Paradoxically, it is Josie's influence and, eventually, her death, that help reconcile Tony to the meaningful new events in his life.

It's a little slow to start, but otherwise an exceptionally candid show that handles its subjects with skill: the death scene is beautifully done. Comedy and tragedy, mime and speech, masked and unmasked characters are well integrated, and the production offers a fine example of what movement-based theatre can achieve. Worth seeing for the spongey-faced, burping baby alone.

'EDR' (071-837 4104); 'Little Victories' (071-242 7040).