THEATRE / Otis interruptus: The odd word, an odder space. Marianne Brace watches rehearsals for one of the more claustrophobic shows in the London International Mime Festival

A small-time Mafia killer takes the lift to the 18th floor of a hotel. He makes his hit, returns to the lift and is stabbed by a moll. His past life begins to play out before his eyes. Been here before? Almost certainly. At least that's what Insomniac Productions director, Pete Brooks, hopes. L'Ascensore (The Lift) 'is about as incoherent a piece of work as I've ever made in terms of what you actually see,' Brooks says. 'But the audience finds it really easy to construct the gaps between the scenes because they feel they've seen it before.'

This is not the first time L'Ascensore has creaked its way in front of an audience. It premiered last summer both in London and at the Polverigi Festival - an international festival of avant-garde theatre set up by the town's mayor, who also happens to be a Professor of Semiotics at Bologna University. The Italians were moved to tears. British audiences have a second chance to find out whether they are made of sterner stuff when L'Ascensore features as part of the London International Mime Festival, this month celebrating its 15th year.

If the festival itself has become a tradition, there's nothing traditional about the kind of mime it promotes. According to Joseph Seelig, founder and co-director of the festival, audiences expecting 'some white-faced nitwit pretending to climb up and down stairs' will be disappointed. 'We're looking at theatre where the impact is visual rather than verbal. Speech is employed as a sound effect.'

A former lecturer at Lancaster University, Pete Brooks was a co-founder of the experimental theatre company Impact. Insomniac Productions grew out of that. 'I'm not a polemicist for avant-garde theatre,' Brooks says,' but I do believe there should be more of a dialogue between what, in this country, is considered fringe and mainstream. In France, for example, there's the tradition maudit (Baudelaire, the Symbolist poets, Dadaists) and the mainstream. As far as I'm concerned Modernism hasn't reached Britain yet.'

With the emphasis on visual theatre, the mime festival includes work by Moving Picture Mime Show - who build a giant house of cards while on stage - and the French company Lackaal Duckric, creating a weird museum of supernatural history through which the audience wanders. In L'Ascensore the visual focus is a specially constructed wood-panelled Art Deco lift, with sombre lighting and folding ironwork grille.

But the set is only one visual element. What Brooks has tried to do ('in an ironic way') is to use the visual language of film. Experimenting with narrative forms, he began with the idea that 'when an audience comes to see something it brings into the theatre loads of stories it knows. We've all been deconstructing stories, trying to break the linear thrust. What I wanted was to make something fragmentary, but where the stories it referred to were clear to those watching, because they'd seen them in films.' Anyone familiar with Coppola or Scorsese can fill in the blanks. 'What a piece like this does is ask what theatre can and cannot do.'

Wanting an operatic tone, Brooks realised he hadn't got the money to work on a vast scale and so he embraced a smaller canvas with operatic potential: a lift, with its suggestions of claustrophobia, being trapped, descending to hell. The lift also circumscribes the narrative, and by keeping the action within that space provides a visual frame. 'It's an attempt to control the audience's gaze as much as possible - a filmic device.'

Six foot square, the lift is the hit-man's 'metaphysical space, his dream space'. And as he observes past events in his own life, nearly all the action takes place outside. The audience (located somewhere in the lift-shaft) watches the performance too, through the lift to the area beyond - now hotel corridor, now basement. That has its problems. Brooks may be able to focus the view of his audience, like a film director, but few can share in the experience. Poor sight-lines mean the audience is restricted to 35 people.

And then there's the difficulty of rhythm. With the lift advancing the story by appearing to move between floors, the constant 'starting, stopping, opening and shutting can become irritating. We had to find devices to interrupt that while not breaking the logic.' Some scenes have grown since last year's run, but Brooks has tried to extend them without wrecking the 'seamlessness' of the scene changes. 'There's a beautiful moment with the mother and father talking about how unhappy they are. Then this aria begins, there's a lot of smoke and the room dissolves. It's on track and just slides backwards, so that Salvatore (the hit-man) is left there with his chair. Like a memory fading.'

The cast of 13 - who switch constantly between English and Italian dialogue - has never seen a formal script. 'It's not a written piece so there's no need to have a definitive text,' Brooks explains. There's only a week to go before opening, yet new cast members getting acquainted with the set seem remarkably unfazed.

L'Ascensore makes all sorts of demands on its performers. Richard Hawley, who plays Salvatore, is almost always alone in the lift. During scene changes, as the lift shifts up or down, he must keep the audience engaged while doing nothing more than slicking back his hair or checking his gun. For the rest of the company, as one actress points out, 'it's more like a film. You go in and do 30 seconds and everything changes. The through-line for us is technical rather than narrative. Each time the lift doors shut we're behind them creating a new environment.'

Other borrowed film techniques include fitting the area behind the lift with microphones to amplify and distort the dialogue. Music underscores the action. Passages have been lifted from Verdi's Macbeth and Requiem, but played backwards and re-arranged so that 'they sound quite a lot like Verdi - beautiful and melodic - but odd.'

And in contrast to this dream-like sound there is cinematic realism. In one scene Salvatore's father blows his brains out with a gun. 'Instead of what normally happens in theatres, where the actor just falls over, there's an explosion and two-and-a-half pints of porridge and blood hit the back wall incredibly hard.'

With all the cross-referencing, you wonder if audiences will feel in need of programme notes to guide them through these 45 minutes. Brooks disagrees. 'I loathe 90 per cent of experimental theatre. I think it's wilfully obscure, its production values are poor, it's intellectually barren. I want the audience to understand what I want to say.'

He sees his work as parody rather than pastiche. 'There's a level at which we find parody enjoyable because it's about recognition. If art is not recognisable it's very difficult. I've always used cliche and parody as a way of grounding work.' And perhaps what audiences most enjoy is the act of homage. 'My great hero is Brecht and Brecht would steal from anybody,' Brooks says cheerfully. 'I think that's really healthy.'

'L'Ascensore' ('The Lift') plays at the ICA 19-24 Jan; LIMF 18 Jan-3 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)