The tensions of the double act have long been a rich source of comedy and drama, with the ‘clown’ often cast as the more serious personality offstage, the most complex, and driven by an intrinsically melancholic disposition. Bristol company Juncture Theatre’s A Little Nonsense explores the dynamics of that relationship – and the shifting degrees of light and shade within the individual – in the most literal way: with a clown… red nose, white face and all.
In their shared space backstage, Man (Harry Humberstone) taps seriously at the typewriter, but is distracted by Clown (Adam Blake), then irritated, until finally he strikes up a steadily more aggressive verbal assault, mocking Clown, sneering at his ‘laboured attempts at everyday activities’. Clown cowers and hunches his shoulders, but all within the clown’s sphere of engagement – mugging at the audience, delivering eloquent facial responses, ‘playing’ fear for Man’s benefit while colluding with the audience. A performance within a performance within a performance, each performer remaining strictly within the prescribed parameters of their roles: Clown refusing to take anything seriously, Man infuriated by Clown’s responses until he succumbs to inhuman behaviour; Clown consistently breaking the fourth wall while Man remains inside the narrative world.
As an interrogation of the inherent tension created by difference, this first act seems hackneyed, although both performers – particularly Blake, who conjures all the required clownish mannerisms with artful dexterity – inhabit their roles well. It is funny and the sudden diversions into the sinister – Humberstone seems constantly on the precipice of unpredictability – add a layer of realism.
It is act two, however – when Man gives in and releases his inner clown, red nose et al – that allows both performers to demonstrate their considerable skills in physical theatre, as the characters immerse themselves in the childish joy of pure play. Broken free of the strictures of the straight role, Man instigates imaginative leaps – an umbrella becomes first a rifle, the shots tapped out on a drum, then a fishing rod, the reeling in of the catch shaken from a football rattle – that Clown plays out in full. Initially Man-Clown’s triggers seem inspired by malice, as if to force Clown into ever more challenging scenarios, but they’re soon united in referencing all the tropes of slapstick, mime and farce – a scene in which Clown chases a kazoo-summoned ‘fly’ around the space is a music hall delight, as is the birth and subsequent life of a balloon baby. But the point is made quickly and the expertise demonstrated, and the whole thing starts to drag.
I’m not an out and out coulrophobe, but I still have to question: Why the clown? It seems a cop-out, a cliché, to explore the dark side of humour and the comedy in misery through the fool. Ultimately, despite the excellent performances, and the fun – it is very funny in places, and the majority of the audience was clearly having a whale of a time – I didn’t care about either of the characters. Perhaps it’s my aversion to the red-nose brigade that makes me less appreciative of what is clearly born of skill. I want to see the company explore human drama without the panstick. Hopefully their work in progress, STUFF, which they will be performing at the Bike Shed Theatre during their residency, will allow me to do so.