I told everyone in the hours before I saw Släpstick, “I hope it’s stupid, I hope it’s fun.” It’s halfway through December now and obviously the last week of December doesn’t really count because the aftershocks of Christmas mean it’s practically an eight-day block which ends the year. And it’s dark outside and it’s cold and it’s raining more and I’m very much in need of some sort of solstice-ritual to remind me that life will come back to the earth, that it always does. I’m not in the mood for anything sententious and I don’t want to be made to ‘think’.
Within two minutes of me sitting down, a fake gun goes off and a stuffed swan falls from the rafters.
So yes thank you, this is what I wanted, very good, carry on.
Släpstick is daft. And that’s all I wanted. But it is also incredibly skilled, robust, polished and well funny. And it’s a real joy to sit and watch well-practised daft people be daft in an elaborate chain of floppy, choreographed comedy sketches. I’m writing this review about 24 hours after seeing the show and it feels distant already, like intense experiences do. It seems a joke in itself to have experienced so much in so short an amount of time. Släpstick is relentless and I couldn’t count the number of turns the troupe do between them.
The publicity boasts that between the five of them, they have mastered over one hundred instruments, which I have no trouble believing. I’m not sure it’d be possible to count the number of instruments which cross the stage in the evening. And obviously they can all sing, too. And they’re all brilliant physical comics and all-round excellent clowns. It’s so absurd, that clowns spend all that time becoming masters of instruments and movement and communication then step onto a stage to try to convince you of their idiocy. I mean, I love it. But I love it because it’s silly.
Very early on, there is an overt homage to Laurel and Hardy – a musical scene by the pair is projected on the back wall and two of our live performers recreate it, dancing and providing the score themselves. It’s sweet, it’s charming and a clear gesture of love from one generation of performers to another. Were it not for them, it seems to say, we might not be here.
The whole evening is a bricolage – you’ve got reference to Buster Keaton, HMV, Swan Lake, pan pipe buskers, Adele. All the cultural heavyweights innit. There is love for more bygone masters of comedy and performance than one might care to shake a violin bow at, and there’s plenty of that, too. Instruments are instruments, sure, but they’re also bizarre lumps of metal and wood that are difficult to lug around, surreal sculptures in themselves if you look at them the right way.
I use the word ‘troupe’. None of the performers are individually credited in the copy – they’re a unit. And there’s an era evoked by the word. I’m sure it’s an image every bit as cobbled together in the present as any ideal past is, but Släpstick has the sense of an historic kind of performance. Of course it’s postmodern and all the tech is contemporary and razor-sharp and a show like this wouldn’t really have happened a century ago. But Släpstick is at the end of a lineage, which it acknowledges. Its techniques are old, its references are historic and it demonstrates a respect for clowning as a discipline which has been around for as long as there have been other people to laugh at.
And even more so, I would argue Släpstick knows its function. In its marketing, its programming at this time of year, its absurdity, it knew what I needed before I entered the room. Because my malaise isn’t anything new, and it’s nothing unique. We’ve shared solutions between us as long as we’ve been around. Theatre isn’t just about getting a load of bodies into a room; it’s about taking care of them, too, together. We might use the approaching solstice as a dark time where we remember the darknesses we have all survived before to get here. We need the carnival to remind us that whatever miserable roles we do play, they are, at least, only roles. Life is the big joke we don’t get to learn the punchline to. Come inside, get warm and laugh.