Freewheeling daffiness of the highest order

Peepolykus take buffoonery very seriously indeed
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The Independent Culture

This is getting silly. I've arranged to interview Peepolykus (pronounced "people like us"), only they are a day late. When I do finally hook up with this touring theatrical threesome, I am led a peculiarly merry dance from one closed cafe to the next, in London's Finsbury Park. That's while they tell me how they missed the ferry from Ireland - twice. Apparently somebody swallowed a marble but nobody told them that the boat had turned around.

This is getting silly. I've arranged to interview Peepolykus (pronounced "people like us"), only they are a day late. When I do finally hook up with this touring theatrical threesome, I am led a peculiarly merry dance from one closed cafe to the next, in London's Finsbury Park. That's while they tell me how they missed the ferry from Ireland - twice. Apparently somebody swallowed a marble but nobody told them that the boat had turned around.

Now, you may, like me, have had a little trouble following that explanation. But the sheer daffiness of it makes sense in a funny sort of way. After all, Peepolykus - whose latest show, Goose Nights, opens at the Lyric Hammersmith this week - are phenomenally loopy clowns who are truly in their element in the realms of the Absurd.

Co-founder John Nicholson is the English one with the Stan Laurelesque vertical hair. His two freewheeling pals with sweet faces and preposterously strong Spanish accents are the spruce, Barcelona-born David Sant and the scruffier ex-pat Basque Javier Marzan. Even if their time-keeping is lousy, all in all they are an irresistibly charming bunch. Living up to their name, they make punters of all ages hoot at their childish antics, digressions, non sequiturs and slapstick ineptitude.

But back in the winter of 1995, when our triumvirate first teamed up, Nicholson was close to throwing in the towel. "I was in crisis," he admits. "I didn't want to be just a jobbing actor. I longed to do something with more pizzazz, something less story-based than other physical theatre companies, something madder. I saw David in a show and I just rang him up cold and discovered he and Javier had already talked about working on a joint project." Soon after, all three started making high-energy mayhem. Their first devised show, Let the Donkey Go, involved - if I remember rightly - deliriously hopeless military manoeuvres, a glove puppet rendition of "Old MacDonald had a Farm" and the mass destruction of digestive biscuits.

The year after, in I am a Coffee, a postman was sent back to the future only to encounter two fishmongers with an inexplicable hunger for impersonations of the Pope. That, in turn, was followed by Horses For Courses which, spoofing all things East European, threw together calamitous Cossack dancing and an all-purpose Chekhovian drama featuring suicides at the end of every scene.

What, one wonders, has formatively induced such sprees of cavorting insanity? Nicholson (a surprisingly quiet and lucid soul offstage) surmises: "My previous career as a psychiatric nurse probably informs my work a lot because in that environment everything considered normal is thrown into disarray. But way before that," he goes on, "I just loved the Marx Brothers. I used to miss family Christmas dinners, because I wanted to watch their films."

Peepolykus have been hailed as the new Groucho and co in some quarters, though Sant quibbles that he can't really see the parallel. "During my early years I was more fascinated by Buster Keaton," (or "Bastard Kitten" according to his somewhat surreal Catalonian pronunciation). Marzan originally yearned to be a serious thesp. "But then," he says, "I saw that there it's all method acting and the audience looks at you through a microscopic hole. With clowning, the wall is down, everybody's there together. That's far more enjoyable."

Nowadays, it seems, Peepolykus may themselves be providing inspiration for others. The Perrier Award nominees Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding (aka The Boosh) play out comparable, loosely structured stories - postmen included - in a knowingly scrappy style with bits of puppeteering. "They came to see I Am A Coffee" says Nicholson, "and they subsequently worked with our then-director Cal McCrystal." Sant stresses: "It's not a sore point, but maybe they tried to get elements of our world."

How Peepolykus compare to fellow physical theatre stalwarts is another question. While companies like Complicite, The Right Size and Told By An Idiot have progressively embraced emotional poignancy and fully-formed storylines - sometimes taking on classic plays - Peepolykus are still essentially larking around. Marzan insists this is deliberate. "We are purists," he says. "We do clowning and we don't try to turn it into deep drama. We don't wish to lose our digressive style either."

On the other hand, there are intimations that their craft may be maturing somewhat along those lines. In 1998, the National Theatre commissioned The Midsummer Rude Mechanical from them, and their latest is based on the Greek myth of the Labours of Hercules. "We've increasingly learned that shows which are just a series of comic routines are hard going," Sant acknowledges. For Goose Nights they've also brought in the actor-turned-dramatist Darren Tunstall to scriptwrite and direct. "He's making sure we stick to the story," says Sant.

Beyond this production, Nicholson is fantasising about staging a lavish spectacular, and they'd all like to get on the big screen. At the end of the day, though, maybe epic enterprises aren't their bag. In Goose Nights, Marzan's Heracles is comically cut down to size. He's a lowly, lazy waiter who's forced to save the world. So it's a safe bet that all grand gestures and super-demanding missions will rapidly turn into a ludicrous farce. Surely, he'll never capture Cerberus. That would mean catching the ferry to Hades.

'Goose Nights': Lyric Studio Hammersmith, W6 (020 8741 8701), previews from tomorrow

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