White Cabin, Purcell Room, London

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The Independent Culture

It is a pungent production. The Russian mime company Akhe lets off clouds of dry ice and cigarette smoke, spray paint, and spill and spit out wine until the smell hangs thickly over the auditorium. White Cabin, a success at the Edinburgh Fringe, is at the South Bank for the London Mime Festival.

The company won Moscow's Golden Mask award last year. It has worked with Derevo, another Russian company with a fondness for anarchy and spilt milk, and with the celebrated clown Slava Polunin. Its performers are unflinching, with a ritual seriousness in dribbling or tying one another up. The bearded Maxim Isaev is the threatening one; Barbara Seiffert is sometimes too carefully wacky.

White Cabin has some funny scenes, some vivid illusions. All the same, there's a danger to taking random surrealism as your method. How much of the incoherence is deliberate, and how soon will your audience grow bored and restless? As it turned out, the dedicated mime fans at the Purcell Room had more stamina than I did.

There's no story, but the focus is on confrontation and frantic consumption: wine spilt and spat over people, the cigarettes smoked (though when Seiffert smokes wistfully, her cigarette blows bubbles). It opens with Pavel Semtchenko, chewing gum with a wine bottle in each hand. He stretches the gum round the first bottle, pulls it out longer, winds it in a cat's cradle around both bottles, then starts to eat it up again. Becoming tangled, he puts one bottle down, seemingly on the air. It stays there as he goes eating.

The bubblegum skein is the first of the show's binding ropes, the first of its illusions. Seiffert sits with her back to the audience, and Isaev carefully arranges her pose. Her hands are spread out to hold ropes in place, her feet set on blocks to the side. There's a wince-making moment when he hammers nails into the blocks - between her toes, but it looks like a crucifixion. Isaev pulls down a mirror on a string and sets it swinging. Our first view of Seiffert's face is this swinging reflection, a different face pulled each time it goes past.

The nails are the closest White Cabin gets to outright violence, but the piece is full of confrontations, of binding ropes and strings. Semtchenko appears dressed in newspapers, strings attached somewhere underneath, and strips by unravelling the string. Seiffert and Semtchenko face each other across the table, his headstand versus her high kick. They arrange themselves for arm wrestling, then for finger wrestling, all with equal gusto and gravity.

White Cabin is inventive and clever, with surprising jokes and images. But it does unravel: the deliberate absurdities can look contrived.

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