It seems somewhat perverse that the opening show of the London International Mime Festival is Blind Summit’s Edinburgh hit The Table – for while this beautifully crafted and often bewitching production does utilize mime, it also boasts a smart and witty script, with the bulk of the performance being a comic monologue.
Of course, it’s not just any monologue: because the undoubted star of the show is only about a foot high and has a head made out of cardboard. He is a Japanese bunraku puppet but, artfully manipulated by his three handlers (Mark Down, Nick Barnes and Sean Garrett, all of whom he occasionally mocks and chides), this is no ordinary puppet. He is funny, sharp and self-aware with the earthy charm and slightly smutty sense of humour of an old school entertainer – he readily explains the reality of his own manipulation, admits he is descended from a long line of cardboard boxes and even shows us some ‘extreme puppetry’ special effects. His universe is the table top – from there he happily surveys his kingdom, and flirts with the audience as he plans our entertainment (“the last 12 hours of Moses’ life, told in real time” – so likeable is the puppet, that sounds almost bearable in his company). But despite offering many laugh out loud moments, there is a poignancy in his performance – because the table top is all he knows, and it is this that he desperately clings to when its stability is shaken, as a mute woman (Sarah Calver) threatens to overthrow his world and expose the loneliness behind the bluff facade. Expertly voiced by Down on a stage that is bare except for the eponymous table, this little puppet is utterly compelling – you forget the very existence of his handlers except when he engages with them, and so real does he become that his plight is genuinely moving.
It’s a shame, then, that the company seems not to have complete faith in his charms, because the rest of the show feels almost tacked on as an afterthought: expertly performed and skilful the final scenes may be, but they give the evening a disjointed feel and come across as excess padding. Having created a character with real emotional resonance and a story the audience can invest in, it seems an odd decision to abandon him in favour of what amounts to visual tricks: it’s like following the end of Hamlet with a troupe of dancing girls – no matter how good they look and how high they are kicking, they don’t belong in the show.
The final scenes do, however, fit into the remit of ‘mime’, and illustrate the performers’ considerable skills in this area. An admittedly beautiful ballet of masks and puppets from behind empty picture frames is a cleverly choreographed optical illusion, but adds little to the show but artful display. The finale restores much of the evening’s humour – a ‘French puppetry’ sketch that reduces a nouvelle vague style crime film to bits of paper drawn from a suitcase, it is a masterclass of storytelling simplicity and timing and is often very funny. But ultimately they both feel unnecessary: stand out set pieces they may be: but they belong in a different production. It was telling that the loudest applause of the evening came for the reappearance of the puppet, returning to take his final bow – would that he had not been absent from the stage for so long.
The Table is part of the 2012 London International Mime Festival. For further details of this year’s programme visit their website.