Mime's the word

Fool House Purcell Room, SBC, London

What is the point of mime? The question is not rhetorical. The word "mime" may cover many styles and levels of sophistication, but in the end what defines the form is, surely, the avoidance of language. Performers who impose such a radical restriction on themselves need to have a clear idea of why they are doing it; otherwise, mime becomes no more than a gimmick - like a juggler who's elected to have one arm tied behind his back.

One reason for avoiding language might be that you hope to transcend it: mime will enable you to reach out across the language barrier, to communicate some universal experience. The ghost of this idea seems to haunt Trestle Theatre's Fool House (Trestle Goes Dutch), with its Anglo- Dutch cast, Amsterdam setting and its sprinkling of gags about Englishness and English preconceptions of Dutchness.

Set inside a tall house in Amsterdam, the inhabitants are, reading from the top: a shy English music student; a dour, football-mad plumber and his more outgoing wife; a lonely, nosy old woman and, in the basement, a depressive businessman who hangs himself at an early stage. All four floors are compressed into one set (as in Alan Ayckbourn's comedy Taking Steps), with much toing and froing up and down an ingeniously contrived staircase.

All this provides the basis for farcical humour, as the inhabitants suffer all the problems of living on top of one another. The student gets stoned; the plumber admits to his wife that he is a transvestite; the old lady tries to buttonhole everybody in conversation. Meanwhile, around them, another farce is taking place, as three dead sailors emerge from their resting place under the house and become embroiled in a game of hide-and- seek with the corpse in the basement.

The sequences of farce are well worked out, and there are genuinely witty set-pieces such as the dead sailors opening up the corpse to release its soul, in the shape of a tiny, buzzing doll with insect wings. Also, Trestle's grotesque rubbery masks are very clever artifacts, the immobile features often suggesting a play of emotions that can't possibly be there.

But as a whole, Fool House feels contrived and unresolved: far from transcending language, the show seems enervated and confused by its absence, retreating too often into slapstick. Stereotypes are confirmed rather than explored, the plot is insufficiently explained, and it's charm doesn't sustain interest for two hours. Far from answering the question, it leaves you wondering all over again: what is the point of mime?

23-27 Sept, Jersey Arts Centre (01534 873767) and touring (info: 0181- 441 0349)

Robert Hanks

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