I HAD a dream the other night in which I was appointed the first Mime Correspondent of the Sunday Times' Culture section. I awoke in a sea of cold sweat, arms flailing dementedly. Not Waving But Miming . . . It's the time of year that's brought this on. Every January, as the London International Festival of Mime flexes its muscles anew, I find myself veering between two abject extremes: breast-beating guilt ('Oh, why can't I like mime more?') and intense irritation ('What can I have done to this Festival to deserve that?').
Though it has the power to speak volumes, body language (as the Festival often proves) can still come across as a series of empty gestures, unless it's (a) extremely funny, or (b) used to illuminate something higher than itself and the performer's skill. Unlike the ability to hit top C, the knack of appearing to be sitting in an invisible chair needs a very carefully chosen context before anyone in his right mind would be prepared to call it an accomplishment. Many mime shows make a point of forgetting this.
Perhaps the most breathtaking display of the art I've ever seen came, a few years back, from the Theatre de la Mandragore who created in mime the total illusion of a jerky, Expressionist silent movie, even down to those comic accelerations of pace when the film skips frames. The insane pointlessness of the exercise may have pleased some, but admiration on my part was severely tempered by a growing sense of futility: couldn't their brilliant technique find anything better to do with itself than meticulously reproduce a set of technological handicaps?
State of Bewilderment, Trestle Theatre Company's contribution to this year's fest, manages to be pointless and preachy, in a gratingly cutesy way. You've heard of the book of the film? Well, this is the puppet-mask-and- mime show of the caricature, a theatricalisation of the world of the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig designed (the publicity claims) 'for adults who seek the child inside them'. It brought out the juvenile delinquent in me. One of the images, for example, pictures the hero as a man-shaped birdcage, his trapped red heart swinging forlornly on its little perch. I can't remember when I last had such a fierce desire to dust down my catapault.
With noses like misshapen melons, the profiles of Leunig's characters (realised here in the huge masks) are vaguely reminiscent of Mel Calman's. The hero is an archetypal little man who, at the start, is shown being terrorised by men in suits and tower-block head-dresses who do a formation dance to a rock beat. A bowler- hatted park keeper with a loudhailer keeps issuing repressive warnings such as 'Dreams will be towed away' and indeed the thought-bubble issuing from the head of a sleeping dosser is summarily hauled off. Our hero takes charge of his bottle of booze (labelled 'LIES') and, in a novel form of litter-collection, spikes up and bins abandoned hearts.
The whimsy remains unrelenting as the show follows this figure into the desert and beyond on his strange search for meaning (at one point, he's given a big telescopic 'understandascope' to look through). His fatigue and self-dissociated bewilderment are well captured using differently sized clones (some of them puppets on poles; some actors in masks). But the twee jokes and crackerbarrel philosophy - 'The path to your door is the path within,' intones a voice-over as the hero treads forward on a line of tape spewing out of his own skull - are an ordeal to sit through. Why waste all this technical ingenuity on such simple- minded material? To figure that out you'd need a state-of-the-art understandascope.
Continues until 6 February at the Cochrane Theatre (Box office: 071- 242 7040)
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