Theatre: A place that pushes your buttons

No egos, no tantrums. The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre sounds like directors' heaven.

this is peculiar. A man-eating tiger grinds the last vestiges of flavour from a victim's braces. An athlete with the face of a Jesus pieta skips floppily, on the edge of collapse. A cat laps at a splatter of poisoned milk then keels over, while a piano playing itself deliriously goes on.

Welcome to the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. Based in a Covent Garden cellar, its actors are push-button automata (objects that mimic the actions of living things). Since automata pretty much amount for their movements I feel compelled to push every button and witness each character's furiously obsessive performance.

The theatre was founded by a group of Falmouth Art College students in the late Seventies. It seems a far cry from the histrionic arts, and automaton- maker Aidan Lawrence admits it is partly a send-up.

Like most of the artists represented, Lawrence got into automata via Lego. He sees the Cabaret Theatre as a haven of wit, intelligence and individuality in an increasingly homogeneous and mass-produced world.

It's also an exploration of absurdity. A mood exacerbated by the jangling piano. The poor automata are remorselessly thwarted in their efforts to grab the petty items they crave - be it an ant or a carrot.

But they refuse to stop trying. Which calls to mind Tantalus, trapped in Hades, eternally reaching for the fruit that hangs within his grasp, then rises out of reach.

Perhaps the most hopeless automaton of all is the skinhead star of "Job Opportunities". Rigid, he stares at the Beano. With his free hand, periodically, he lifts the lid from a covered green banana so it can ripen. The reality of Welfare to Work?

It's so grim it's funny - I keep catching myself laughing out loud. I am enchanted by the pair of Harpies extracting the tough Mediterranean worm which, according to the writing on a tablet, constituted their staple diet. Apparently, "Harpies can be distinguished from sirens by observing their working methods: the sirens' modus operandi consisted in luring seafarers to their doom whereas Harpies made housecalls."

The lunacy absorbs me for a vibrant, unsettling hour. Then I decide to consult an oracle. Following written commandments, I lick the back of my hand then press my arm on the shrine worktop.

I'd meant to ask the meaning of life. But confronted with the Oracle's bald staring face and mechanical claw, I just mumble: "Anybody home?". Promptly the Oracle stamps my hand with a dry ink pad then pours sand on top - it slides off.

No message shows up. So I ring Elvis: pickled in a fish tank. The operator connects me. A long pause. Then I ask what went wrong into the silence. All Elvis does is sing dreamily and almost inaudibly. Before I can think of the name of the song, the line goes dead. The King's exposed heart (or it is a poisoned kidney?) spins round and reveals the word "Mum".

I don't quite get it. With a sense of trepidation I resort to Larry's Love Line, which essentially consists of a pink phone. As I lift the receiver it begins to glow. Then I hear a voice like that of Tom Waits and Barry White all rolled into one. It advises "You got... to get her wobbly... like a jelly." The receiver rattles.

The voice continues: "You got to blooow on her." A jet of air spurts into my ear. I stare at the receiver while in the background, like the dumb machines' voice, the piano jabbers dementedly on.

The Mechanical Theatre make-your-own automata manual is out now. To order and for more information on the theatre call 0171 379 7961.

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