Jakop Ahlbom Company’s offering for the 2017 London International Mime Festival was the smash hit Horror, a gloriously excessive piece of physical theatre that incorporated mime, acrobatics, magic, illusion, a mechanical hand scuttling around the stage and, for horror fans, an entertaining chance to spot the allusions all the way through the piece.
This year they return with Lebensraum, a tribute piece to Buster ‘Old Stone Face’ Keaton. It follows two inventors in identical Keatonesque black and white sub-Pierrot facepaint and neat black suits, who create a mechanical maid with curly red hair and a jolly yellow dress to take over the chores. As in any good silent comedy, utter pandemonium ensues, as the mechanical maid runs amok and the inventors try to both fix, discipline and woo her.
The stage is the main room of the inventor’s house, serving as the bedroom, the kitchen, the reception room, the dining room and once, alarmingly, the toilet. It is decorated with a sort of grim respectability; dark furniture and ugly brown patterned wallpaper call ancient maiden aunts to mind, and in fact Ahlbom’s two inventors have a fussy old-womanish air to them, irritably placing and replacing crockery, meticulously manipulating ropes and pulleys to summon salt, pepper and oil for their lunch, fastidiously swinging their legs in huge circles over chairs in order to sit down.
The room is, naturally, filled with classic slapstick tricks. Walls and doors spin, revealing new vistas. Jumping out a window lands the inventors in the next room, or under the sofa. Space turns back on itself, locking the performers in a bizarre meta-world where physics is flexible but proprietary isn’t. The two inventors are aware of the two musicians providing the soundtrack, and occasionally need to impatiently wait for them to take their places so they can start the next scene; the fact that the mechanical maid is sometimes doll and sometimes automaton doesn’t faze them at all, but putting a flirtatious arm around her shoulder is still a matter of terrible difficulty and embarrassment.
For anyone expecting the high-octance Gothic riot of Horror, Lebensraum feels quieter and smaller. Part of this is to do with the smaller cast – two inventors, one maid, and the brilliant Alamo Race Track providing a surprisingly fitting live indie rock soundtrack, dressed in suits that match the wallpaper. But it’s also to do with the nature of Keaton’s comedy. Repetition and subtlety inform the physical humour; eschewing the merely slapstick. Ahlbom’s inventors find absurdity in the commonplace, and a long sequence in the middle of the piece features on inventor desperately trying to get the maid to sit upright at the table.
There is only one jaw-dropping piece of illusion – when one of the inventors appears to jump through the body of one of the musicians to the outside – and though the strength and physical dexterity of the performers is evident in the movement direction, the focus is so much on the po-faced humour that it’s easy to forget just how much training and rehearsal must have gone in to making this piece. Lebensraum isn’t a returning tour-de-force for Jakop Ahlbom Company, but it is an enjoyable and creative piece of physical theatre.
Lebensraum was on as part of the London International Mime Festival 2018. Click here for more details.