Dance: Tangentes, Barbican Theatre, London<br/>All Wear Bowlers, Barbican Pit, London

Round the twist and back again
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If there was one thing you could rely on, in the early years of the Mime Festival, it was the no-talking rule. How to explain, then, the French-to-English translation handed out to audiences in the Barbican Theatre on Wednesday night, and, at another Festival show on Tuesday, a British Sign Language interpreter? There the woman stood, gamely gesticulating to the hard of hearing with all the lucidity and reassuring syntax that once belonged to mime. For circularity, that's hard to beat.

In Mathurin Bolze's show, Tangentes, the performers prattle away in French, but it really doesn't matter how little you understand. One man lists what we're forbidden to do for the next 75 minutes: take photos, eat, use our mobiles ("but if you must, please crouch down between the seats"). Another relates a nightmare, a third talks to a plant. It's all pretty irrelevant to the trampolining which Bolze is famous for, but it adds to the sense of lawlessness enshrined in the set - a perilous-looking shack built from corrugated metal and decking - and marvellous improvisatory music for percussion and sax.

A woman sits writing at a desk, but the chair and the desk keep sidling away from one another, or inching forward in a dance. Performers trip and fall face down into a hidden trampoline, returning to the same pose as if on elastic, or floating up to land on a platform 10 feet above. Some of the effects are purely balletic; others tease your brain. By means of conveyor belts set at different speeds the four performers play games with expectation: one pair walk towards each other yet actually move further apart, another pair retreat from each other yet come closer. Someone runs, another walks, and the hare is overtaken by the tortoise.

Two life-size rag dolls further disrupt the laws of nature. No matter that you know they're only made of stuffing, your heart's in your mouth as the Amazonian Marie Anne Michel lugs one of them up a 30ft flagpole and leaves it skewered at the top, after which act of dastardly female revenge she (naturally enough, being French) removes all her clothes and slithers down the pole without them.

The finale homes in on the naked human form. A man lies flat, then assumes the scampering profile of a quadruped, then walks as early hominid, then upright homo sapiens. Then he starts to run with long, strong strides, the curve of every muscle finely sculpted by light and shadow. Sometimes he runs faster, or his speed slackens, yet there he is, pinned to his treadmill like a specimen inviting inspection. Miles and miles he runs, while we sit and view the glorious workings of sinew and socket. In the end, this show is a poem to the wonder of the human mechanism, and leaves cast and audience speechless.

Imagine Waiting for Godot played by Laurel and Hardy, designed by Magritte, and you get some idea of the range of reference in All Wear Bowlers by the American clown duo Rainpan 43. It begins, nostalgically, with a rattly projector, a tinkly piano, and a black-and-white silent movie. Two figures trudge along a road to nowhere. They stop to check the map. They argue. Then one of them bursts through the screen and becomes flesh.

Freaked out by a roomful of gawping people, he retreats to the film, tells his friend what happened ("There's people out there!" reads the caption) and so begins the existential fun as both figures lurch back and forth between their screen and real selves. How they manage this technically, I couldn't tell, but it's immaculately done and very funny.

When the projector breaks down, they're stuck with the real world, and it takes them a while to realise what's expected of them - a hoary old gag that still works. In their eagerness to please, both become prodigious producers of eggs (from pockets, sleeves and orifices), and inside one, in another existentialist touch, they find a ticket to their own show. The previous incumbents of those seats are duly evicted and the besuited pair sit down to, um, enjoy the show. This sails awfully close to the wind but stays afloat by dint of pure charm and a string of fantastical distractions including a one-man re-enactment of the climax of the movie King Kong. Did the hard of hearing really need this interpreted by a kind lady at the side of the stage? I found this the funniest joke of all.