A casual remark from a stranger says a lot about the London International Mime Festival. "Are the performers famous or on TV?" asks a Japanese tourist in the seat in front.
"It was so hard to get a ticket, I thought they must be".
The truth is that none of the performers in the annual two-week season is ever a household name. The acts come from all over Europe and beyond, and tend to operate under the radar. Shows sell out because audiences have come to trust the capital's longest running international theatre season to deliver something fresh and dynamic, whether that be in the form of physical theatre, new circus, puppetry, whatever. It may still be mostly lo-tech, but the man in the glass box hung up his beret long ago.
True to form, which is to say unpredictably, both the shows picked at random for review in this column contain dialogue. Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl, from American duo Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford, is an apocalyptic advance on television's The Office, with added taxidermy. Admin drones for a convenience food company, Gerry and Rhoda fritter away the working day in a state of guilty inertia spiked with irritation. While he devises elaborate routines for the rearrangement of Post-It notes, or hatches angry plots to trap passing flies, she indulges a compulsive snacking habit, crunching and slurping furtively behind filing cabinets, or abusing the microwave, if only to annoy her office-mate with its beeps.
So far, so familiar, though it must be said that long, watchful silences in a theatre are harder to tolerate than on TV, where at least you can get up and make a cup of tea. Granted, this tedium is carefully calibrated, so that when a furry animal scuttles across the office floor you almost jump out of your skin. There are further wildlife intrusions: a clucking pheasant in the photocopier paper box, a deer in a doorway, a rabbit on a shelf. It's only when, with mounting relish culminating in hysteria, Rhoda reads out a newspaper report about a pack of rescue chimps involved in a murderous revolt, that mayhem kicks in. Gerry dares to eat Rhoda's ready-meal, she attacks him, and a corporate video plays on the wall, showing dead pigs strung up in an abattoir and industrial quantities of pork mince extruding from a machine to strains of Debussy's Clair de lune.
I won't reveal the dénouement. Suffice to say that it involves collapsing walls, birdsong and a hungry brown bear in a liftshaft. We ignore the natural world at our peril – we know that. But Sobelle and Ford manage to interlace the eco-message with a satirical commentary on the futility of much that passes for work, and the disgustingness of much that passes for food. As comedy it errs on the slow side, but it's certainly daring.
La Porta, from Swiss clowning trio Compagnia 2+1, is jollier, anchored by a multilingual stooge who breaks into Rossini in a fine tenor voice. His best trick is to shred the Evening Standard to produce a copy of Le Figaro while singing a complicated aria from The Barber of Seville ("Figaro, Figaro ...").
The other two are endearing dopes with a throwaway line in acrobatics, juggling, escapology and playing the trumpet and tuba. The trouble is that the dramatic nub of the show, the performers' competitive efforts to lay claim to a door – yes, you read that correctly, a door – is so creakingly contrived. Had I brought a clutch of six-year-olds, I might have giggled along with them. The best clown shows have no upper age limit.
'Flesh and Blood', to Sat (0845 121 6839). 'La Porta' tonight only (0844 847 9928). The Festival continues to next Sunday (mimelondon.com).
Jenny Gilbert sees two shows that explore the choreography of laughter
How often do you get the chance to try before you buy? Sadler's Wells Sampled (Fri & Sat) offers excerpts from upcoming shows, from the latest in hip-hop to soloists from the legendary American Ballet Theatre. Meanwhile, Birmingham Royal Ballet heads to the Theatre Royal, Plymouth with its handsome Cinderella, above, (Tue to Sat).