The silent minority

Chet Baker is now a woman who sings, not a man who plays the trumpet

Richmond shepherd, the eccentric Los Angeles theatre impresario, spent his latter years touring the theatre festivals of Europe in search of performers with unusual bodies. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1987 I bumped into him at an open-air Welsh jugglingact and he pressed a leaflet into my pocket. The leaflet showed a white-faced man with hands extended in characteristic Marcel Marceau pose and carried the slogan "Richmond Shepherd, World's Foremost Mime". Somehow, it didn't tempt me.

"Mime" is both an unhelpful and an inaccurate banner under which to present the range of work in the London International Mime Festival, which opens tomorrow on the South Bank. In past years the directors Joe Seelig and Helen Lannaghan have been at painsto say that mime means more than white painted faces and Marcel Marceau. This time, they have the tricky task of explaining why Marceau's mime adaptation of Gogol's story The Overcoat is at the top of the bill.

One possible reason is that "mime" proper - the precise stylised physical discipline which flowered into popularity after Prevert's wartime film Les Enfants du Paradis - is experiencing a surprise revival. At 71, Marceau, who was trained by the film's choreographer Etienne Decroux, has finally been given state funding to run a permanent company, and Decroux himself, who died in obscurity in 1991, is now being celebrated by a company called Theatre de L'Ange Fou which recreates his choreography all over France.

Theatre de L'Ange Fou appears at this year's festival with The Man Who Preferred to Stand - a composite of a dozen classic Decroux routines dating back to 1931. There is also an appearance by Sweden's Marionetteatern, whose magical staging of Strindberg's Ghost Sonata opens the Festival tomorrow night at the Purcell Room. Michael Meschke, who founded Marionetteatern in 1958, was also a graduate of Decroux's Paris studio and the three shows together offer a mini-retrospective of the grand mime-master's work and influence.

The rest of the Festival, meanwhile, contains several genuine discoveries, notably Josette Bushell-Mingo's performance in People Show 100, a tribute to the jazz legend Chet Baker. What makes Bushell-Mingo unforgettable is her sensuous singing, which gives a heaped spoonful of soul to help the stylistically abstract play go down. Every aspect of the production is slightly skewed from reality. The brilliantly conceived hotel set is not quite the Amsterdam boarding-house from which Baker fell through a win dow to his death in 1988, and Bushell-Mingo, who plays Baker, is a woman who sings, not a man who plays the trumpet.

A different kind of theatrical soulfulness comes in the shape of Yoshi Oida, the Japanese actor who appeared last year in Peter Brook's The Man Who... Oida appears in a one-man show, Interrogations, in which he stands on stage and throws unanswerable questions at his audience. He then enacts replies through stylised movement and live music. Oida has performed versions of this continually evolving show in festivals around the world since 1979 and anyone who was impressed by The Man Who... would be mad to miss it.

British groups in the festival include the Mancunian Glee Club, whose previous successes include performing a fairy tale in which they persuade the audience to sympathise with a tomato. Here, they are offering a Wild West fantasy, Cotton Mather's Wondersof the Invisible World, seen briefly last year at the Royal Court Upstairs after winning the prestigious Barclays' New Stages Award.

The Glee Club form part of a short series of one-off performances at the ICA which also includes a rare chance to see Ernst Fischer perform beyond the confines of his Brixton living room. Since 1986, Fischer has been developing and performing his work athome, a venue he now calls the BRIXTON heART ROOM. Every time he produces a new show, he also produces a new design which he then has to live in for months on end until the next show and the next set. Heaven knows how the Festival organisers got to hearabout his work, and heaven knows what it will look like when he is transported, hermit-crab-like, into the cool atmosphere of the ICA. But A Brief History of ...(Silence)... sounds like an unmissable night of oddness on Monday.

Elsewhere, the programme is fleshed out by acts ranging from the Lindsay Kemp Company's vampish Cinderella to a circus cabaret featuring the exotic Skinning the Cat (painted girls on ropes, see front cover). My only beef is that the organisers persist inlumping all this together as "mime". Even Marceau himself would be better served if he were described as the Festival's exception rather than its rule. The directors should acknowledge that the distinctive programme is the product of their own eclectic tastes and rename it "The Seelig and Lannaghan Festival of Unusual Theatre". Then we could unreservedly celebrate what has undoubtedly become a cultural treasure.

Festival runs at venues all over London to 29 Jan (071-637 5661)

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