Jakop Ahlbom Company, Peacock Theatre, London, review: A distinctive sense of atmosphere

Following the hit ‘Horror’, Ahlbom returns with his mix of surreal slapstick and acrobatics, this time inspired by Buster Keaton’s 1920 silent film ‘The Scarecrow’

Zo Anderson
Friday 02 February 2018 14:07 GMT
The Jakop Ahlbom Company perform 'Lebensraum' at the Peacock Theatre
The Jakop Ahlbom Company perform 'Lebensraum' at the Peacock Theatre (Stephan Hesteran)

Getting out of bed, Jakop Ahlbom props one foot on a table and starts to do his stretches. Then he tugs at his other leg, lifting that too – and is surprised to find that taking both feet off the ground flips him onto his back. Lebensraum, a tribute to the silent comedy of Buster Keaton, is full of deft acrobatics and visual jokes, though it lacks the narrative drive of Ahlbom’s previous hit, Horror.

Born in Sweden and now based in the Netherlands, Ahlbom creates surreal and sometimes unnerving mime dramas, with physical comedy and aggressive scenery that is ready to pull rugs from under the performers’ feet. Appearing as part of London International Mime Festival, his work is part dance, part drama, with a distinctive sense of atmosphere.

Inspired by Keaton’s 1920 film The Scarecrow, Lebensraum starts with Ahlbom and Reinier Schimmel sharing a cramped room packed with labour-saving devices. In Ahlbom and Douwe Hibma’s set design, the bed folds up into a piano; salt and pepper pots hang on strings over the table; a pulley and counterweight bring the water bottle swinging out of the fridge and back again. Getting up and having breakfast becomes an intricately ballet of catches and near misses, with seething passive aggression over who gets more of the toast.

The live music comes from Alamo Race Track, a guitar, zither and piano-playing duo wearing striped suits that exactly match the room’s wallpaper: you don’t realise they’re there until they turn around. They watch as Ahlbom and Reinier construct a female automaton, played with brilliant bendiness by Silke Hundertmark.

Where Horror mashed up the tropes and clichés of the genre to create its own story, Lebensraum meanders. In a 70-minute show, there’s some padding, and ideas that aren’t developed. Ahlbom takes his title literally as “living space”, seeming to ignore the term’s implications of colonial expansion. And though I enjoyed Hundertmark’s scary fixed smile and robot movements, Ahlbom doesn’t dig into the implications of man-creates-ideal-woman narratives. The automaton is comically unpredictable, but not concerned with her own freedom.

Ahlbom and his team do build beautifully sharp jokes. With a blend of physical logic and illogic, they vanish and reappear through windows, evoke housemate resentments or wrestle with gravity, their own and other people’s limbs.

Until 3 February (mimelondon.com)

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