The creative brief behind Only Bones is as skeletal as the name suggests. “One performer, one light, no narrative, no text, no set”, were the restrictions imposed by Kiwi Lecoq grads Thom Monckton and Gemma Tweedie in their offering for the London International Mime Festival. As if that’s not enough, the specifications state that all action must take place within the invisible walls of a one meter squared performance space. Kallo Collective has set itself a hard task, but someone’s got to attempt it – and that person is mime artist co-founder, Monckton. But does he pass his own test?
Restricting your concept to one performer is no restriction when your performer is Monckton. This versatile, flexible artist brings such a sense of control and humour over his disembodied limbs, flailing muscles and gravity-dependent features. Here, the act of standing up straight becomes a feat of wonder, a recognition of the complexity of the human body, a dismantling of all the ease of movement we can take for granted.
Monckton holds his head in his hands, otherwise it won’t stay up. He tries to balance his skull on his shoulders – contorting his body, twisting his arms, and spinning around so quickly in the hope of outrunning gravity. Everything is mouldable, everything is subject to the world outside the meter-square confines. His face is plasticine, shaped into taunt new expressions by every manual pull of skin. His tongue either lolls rudely out, or threatens to choke – a tilt to the head or a thump to the chest triggering these alternate states.
When Monckton moves his upper body, tinny treble sounds surround him; submerged bass then resounds as the choreography drops to his legs, then the soundtrack cracks like twisted bubble wrap as he stretches out his spine. Our lone performer is a beatbox of bodily jerks, of imaginative, original conjurings, and expression that, practised yet free, seems to surge beyond the limitations of a human body.
Does a colour-changing light bulb go beyond “one light”? The technicolour pendant hanging directly over the stage makes for a generous interpretation of this limitation. At one point, purple gels pull us into the sea, where Monckton’s hands describe the adventures of invertebrate marine life; later, blue lighting cools two hands as they fight over a glove until, with the help of a blushed bulb, finger-holes become the aorta exiting a beating heart.
A more obvious breaking of the rules is seen as Monckton, decapitated body re-headed with lampshade, rocks and nurses an angled desk lamp. It’s cute, and kind of what you expect to happen after a hard day’s filming at Pixar – until mummy-lamp presses his own “off-switch” to the tune of a penetrating electric buzz
Okay, there’s no overarching narrative here, but there are plenty of stories, and just as many visual puns as Only Bones encourages us to escape into its creators’ imaginations, then taunts us as we momentarily forget what is right in front of us. Hands, clothed in socks, battle to be paired with feet, all digits scrambling mischievously to reveal each other’s disguises. Then, facing the blood red attack of a nail varnish bottle, a messily-manicured palm cries out for resuscitation. The fingers of Monckton’s left hand check the pulse of his right pulse, encouraging us to banish the reality of interdependence between our two handy actors.
In his quest to communicate without words or script, Monckton is a sharp and engaging communicator. “Ahhh”, he exclaims. “Ahhh! Ohhh! Ummm!” He looks to his hands like a discerning food critic. “Ahh. Oohh. Mooo. Baaa….Mooo. Baaa.” The fingers of his right hand pace towards the leaping digits of his left. “Mooo. Baaa. Booo.” The feline digits left hand slink towards the bobbing fingers of his right. “P-cluck. Meow. P-cow”. Our performer draws on the audience to bring animals into his lab of audio hybrids, and an involving game of combinations is born.
Lamp and performer aside, the limited performance space is sparse, but Tuomas Norvio fills this absence with a sound design that hinges exactly halfway between natural and sci-fi. Metallic, distorted glitches are punctuated by essential rhythms and curious organic sounds, imaginatively evoking images of chattering teeth or rattling beads. The limitations placed on set have enabled the soundscape to orientate the piece, locating it in an aural setting as bizarre and imaginative as the world sketched out by movement.
All within 1m2
A trip into an underwater setting sees Monckton anxiously feel out the walls of his imaginary tank, but relax – Only Bones pays only a passing nod to the glass boxes where many mime does dwell. The rest of this production sees a far more explorational, original interaction between mime-artist and space. By casting his hands as independent players in various short stories, Monckton evokes ocean and farm, Wild West and kitchen table and – with a subtle sprinkle of embarrassment – the full journey from date to mattress. Kallo Collective co-founder Tweedie sits patiently to the right of Monckton’s confined space, looking artful and awkward in equal measure.
Generally, Only Bones triumphs beyond its limitations. There’s a little more light than promised, but if the creators set out to ‘turn the show’s aesthetic into a concept so that there can be other Only Bones shows in future’, then they’ve certainly succeeded. Forget what you think about mime, this piece wears its confinement with style and substance and, against expectations, ultimately employs its restrictions to shape a piece that bursts beyond its invisible walls.
Only Bones is on at the Soho Theatre until 4th February 2017. Click here for more details.