Before seeing A Night with Thick & Tight, I was having a drink with some friends. I had to leave early because I was off to review something that was “part of the London International Mime Festival”.
“Mime?” Amberely repeated back to me. “You mean, like,” and here she mimed the movement most commonly associated with the word mime: help me, I’m trapped behind this wall [palms press against invisible wall in front of face].
“No no,” I said with the pomposity of an expert, shovelling chips into my mouth. “It’s not just clowns in whiteface. It’s, like, physical theatre.”
Then I left before anyone could ask me how mime differed from physical theatre.
Imagine my shame, then, when A Night with Thick & Tight opens with Eleanor Perry and Daniel Hay-Gordon in whiteface, their costumes monochromatic in the best of mime traditions, in a piece called Queen Have & Miss Haven’t. In a gigantic frilled black skirt, a black turban and a diamante crown, Perry is a ghoulish Queen Victoria, pickling in widowhood; in a white waspie and a white crinoline, Hay-Gordon is a hysterical Miss Havisham. Tim Spooner’s costumes are a camp spectacular.
Lip-syncing to extracts from classic Hollywood and modern soap operas, ghastly in their exaggerated marionette mime-ballet, Perry and Hay-Gordon explore the dynamic that might have existed between two doyennes of antique Victorian chastity. With the wickedly funny, deeply stressful atmosphere of a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? deleted scene, but drawing on a clownish, comedic physicality and an Expressionist aesthetic, Queen Have & Miss Haven’t feels closer to exactly the sort of mime Amberley might have been referring to.
In the next part, Radical Daughters, Julie Cunningham portrays, in one body, artists, step-sisters and lovers Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. An abrupt departure in tone, Radical Daughters nevertheless excels in creating the duetting tension between two souls that lit Queen Have & Miss Haven’t, despite using half as many limbs. Cunningham, whose taut, controlled energy breaks into kicks, arches and almost throwaway virtuoso extensions, compels.
The final part of the evening, The Princess & The Showgirl, is the glorious culmination of the ideas we’ve seen tested in the first two sections. What were Thick & Tight exploring when they put two myth-mothballed old women together and persuading us to laugh? What intimacy and vulnerability did they suggest we glimpse at in the performance of two lovers in one body? Why, like cultured magpies, draw together a soundtrack of found media and famous scenes? What are we hearing, seeing, doing here?
In The Princess & The Showgirl, Hay-Gordon is Marilyn Monroe. Wigless, in a black velvet dress and heels, he makes no attempt to visually mimic Monroe, except when he lip-syncs her in films or in interviews, where he mirrors Monroe’s expressions and language. The dissonance between his presentation and his impressive impression of the Hollywood star gives the sense that Monroe is wavering on the surface of his face like a reflection passing over water; it is both funny, in the way that things that confound our expectation are funny (a man in drag!! so funny!!), but also gives a startling sense of Monroe in eternal captivity, flickering from face to face, suggestion to suggestion, impression to impression.
Perry, by contrast, is the incarnation of Princess Diana. There are no other words for the disorientating accuracy of Perry’s portrayal. She wears costumes that draw on Diana’s own wardrobe, a wig that is the perfect semblance of Diana’s famous haircut, and a face that, stunningly, unbelievably, is Diana’s. Audience members who have seen Perry’s exhilarating turn as Margaret Thatcher in Gary Clarke Company’s COAL might be prepared for this witchcraft, but even then, it is jawdropping.
Diana incarnate is not merely a visual cipher, but also a tenderly studied one. Perry lip-syncs to Diana’s interviews, and her portrayal of the vulnerability of the young princess – only 20 when she married Prince Charles – is painfully moving. Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Harry Alexander and Claudia Palazzo respectively) are portrayed as gigantic figures in huge totemic masks, dragging Diana back and forth in a dance they have clearly choreographed; Diana’s determined independence is referenced in a very funny strutting solo referencing her campaign against the landmines.
But by drawing so liberally on the actual recorded words of the two women, peppering their pitch-perfect mimicry with fantastical skits and buffoonery, making, essentially, a circus performance of their lives, Thick & Tight also expose the obsessive scrutiny they came under, and the appalling pressure under which they lived. Their lives were a circus performance, and the public were not always the kindest circus masters.
What are we hearing, seeing, doing here? We have been seeing, all evening, the creatures we build out of hearsay and reputation; we’ve had our own assumptions presented to us in Technicolour. Inside the mimed work is a person, pressing at the invisible wall and trying to speak. So sorry, Amberley, you were quite right – mime really is like that.
A Night with Thick & Tight is at the Lillian Bayliss Studio, Sadler’s Wells, as part of the London International Mime Festival until 19th January. More info here.