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How much is that Aussie in the window?

For 13 days, four Australians lived in a shop front in south London - and the locals loved it. INGRID KENNEDY joined the party
Imagine living 24 hours a day in a glass cage under the watchful gaze of an audience, where your every action, however private, is seen by all and sundry. Well four Australian performers have done just that. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, amid the glare of the national press, four bald guys, looking like a Right Said Fred tribute band, were locked into the window display of Arding & Hobbs, a south London department store. For 13 days they cooked, cleaned, bathed and did everything but pee in front of the Great British Public.

It might sound like a Japanese endurance television show but this is, apparently, serious drama - part of the London International Festival of Theatre, in fact. "The glass breaks barriers between us and the audience, but also within the audience itself," explains performer David Wells. The format was a great success in Melbourne, Montreal and Belgium - "It's quite a phenomenon," says Wells - but how did it go down with reserved Brits, who'd rather suck lemons than say hello to someone they've lived next to for 20 years?

Well, Neil, David, Nick and Andrew survived and emerged last Thursday elated, if a little pale and shaky, and positively brimming with enthusiasm about the south London crowd. "The audience was afraid in the beginning," explains Neil Thomas, leader of the troupe, "but by the end they became friends."

And didn't they just. Women in particular entered into the spirit of things. One, described by her friend as normally "very shy and demure", was doing a highly suggestive tango with one of the guys after just a few minutes - literally smooching with him through the glass. Another arrived and instantly broke into an Irish jig. At night the pavement leapt around to the sound of the "Jailhouse Rock". And, surprise surprise, a group of lads on their way home from the pub pulled down their trousers and mooned at them. "We took it as a friendly gesture," says Neil diplomatically.

During the two weeks, they attracted a regular audience from all walks of life. Mums on the school run rubbed shoulders with suited city types and schoolgirls watched their new heroes alongside the deaf, for whom the show was a natural draw. They chatted with the men inside via sign language, e-mail, phone and fax. Soon the window became a regular haunt for the locals. Rebecca Chubb changed her daily walk to the station so she could wave good morning to the boys. "They're bleary-eyed at that time and get livelier later on," she says. And, naturally, as true performers the men did their fair share to entice them.

"Once, three of them were having dinner while the other was having a shower," recalls Rebecca. "He asked someone to pass his towel, but got given a furry animal instead. He had to come out and grab his towel, with his privates barely covered and I found myself really feeling for him, just hoping he was going to make it with his dignity intact."

Despite the pressures, the performers are still on speaking terms. "We've had a ball," says Neil, "we've worked together for 15 years and we're great friends." Neil's only frustration was hurting his knee in an energetic dance routine which meant he was forced to take it easy. "The other guys had to strap me down, as I was so keen to join in I was risking more damage to my knee."

When the four were let out, they kissed the regulars goodbye, bringing some close to tears. There's no doubt that the sight of four men baring all provoked a strong reaction. Steve Caubergh, another regular, believes the presence of the guys led him to talk to people in the street in a way he wouldn't normally do, "We all have something in common now by watching this."

But perhaps this fascination with other people going about their ordinary lives is not really a surprise. We've always been a nation of nosy parkers, albeit from a discreet distance. Thanks to a group of endearingly exhibitionist Aussies, the Brits have come out of the closet and started dancing in the street.