THEATRE: A Minute Too Late Lyttelton, National Theatre London ooo99

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The Independent Culture
THE THREE guys on stage appear to be imitating strenuously the elastic-limbed expressionist slapstick of early Complicite shows. Rip- off or homage? Hang on, though, this is neither. It's a reprise of the company's A Minute Too Late, an antic vaudeville about death first seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1984 and now revived with the original performer-devisers (Simon McBurney, Marcello Magni and Jozef Houben) to celebrate Complicite's 21st birthday.

Watching it in the Lyttelton is a bit like seeing, say, the Monty Python team reunite to dust down the Dead Parrot sketch or "The Lumberjack Song" for an Amnesty International benefit. There are differences, however. A Minute Too Late lasts 80 minutes, and this company has neither split up nor ever ceased to develop.

Time has been kind to the makers of the show - the performers' contortions are as hilariously rubbery and supple as ever - but McBurney and team have gone on to produce some of the most humanly profound and theatrically inventive pieces in the canon, such as Mnemonic, and thus, while one can trace continuities of style and preoccupation, A Minute Too Late feels comparatively sophomoric and self-conscious.

The show pitches a Mr Bean-like nerd of a widower (played by McBurney) into the socially repressed and emotionally embarrassed wilderness that is the world of the recently bereaved in this country. He starts off in a graveyard, where he only has to glance at another family's headstone for it to disintegrate spectacularly. He's then shunted into a receiving line for mourners (where his repeated "I'm so sorry" is not just an attempt at condolence but a mark of his confusion over who is bereaved), and into the office of a registrar who is so uptight about his job that he resorts to miming the various possible causes of death.

Rather than attending to the subject, A Minute Too Late sometimes heads off into the merely attention-seeking. A protracted sequence in which McBurney is given a lift with a corpse in a hearse by the undertaker from hell has hardly anything to do with death and its etiquettes (except by dippy default) and a great deal to do with their wanting to put on a bravura mime display of the thrills and spills of being driven home by a speeding maniac.

Matters improve when the widower arrives back at his flat, where he makes a lonely cup of tea, peruses the bleakly helpful official literature (a pamphlet entitled "What to do after a death in England and Wales"), cuts around his wife's photo so that it will fit in a new "antique" frame, and falls into a flashback of the desperate days of clutching at hopeful straws before his wife's diagnosis.

It is here that one gets a foretaste of the circling, layered, musically structured, emotionally piercing dramatic maturity of Complicite's glorious prime.

In repertory, to 26 February (020-7452 3000)

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