Its January 2017 and I’ve dragged two of my most ‘theatre-y’ friends to Thomas Monckton’s Only Bones at Soho Theatre. I think everyone who works in or loves live performance has theatre-y and non-theatre-y friends. There’s the ones who come to you needing recommendations for visiting relatives (A Regent’s Park open -air musical, treat them to a picnic basket and secure that inheritance) or work people they need to woo (anything candlelit at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). Then there’s those to whom you can say ‘let’s go and see this thing at London International Mime Festival where this cool New Zealand dude spends the first 20 minutes just moving his hands under a desk light’.
Monckton seems to have one weirdly flexible foot in the theatre-y and non-theatre-y camps. Only Bones was a showcase of his uncanny ability to tell a story using only his fingertips and range of expressions that suggest his face is entirely made of putty. It was mesmerising, funny and beautiful and almost impossible to explain it to my very non-theatre-y siblings in the pub. ‘You do like some weird shit Frank, not exactly Mamma Mia is it?’ Well, no – it isn’t. And that’s not a slight on Mamma Mia which is bloody brilliant providing you like ABBA. But it does occupy a different sphere to work that can be more easily quantified, that is more straightforwardly enjoyable. That’s what Monckton’s The Artist, his offering for this year’s Fringe is. It’s not less clever or any how less worthy for its lightness as he works through a series of very funny motifs in trying to create the perfect painting. But maybe it buckles under the weight of my expectations. Having seen what Monckton can do with little more than a spotlight and sonic gestures, perhaps I just wanted more from a production crowded with tricksey props. There’s so much stuff in this show it risks burying its protagonist.
In his 2016 masterclass of clowning The Pianist, Monckton permeated every piece of set and costume with his capacity for surprise. The piano was an extension of his body, working with him to set up perfectly timed, largely silent comedy skits. Think the house falling over Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr as opposed to The Chuckle Brothers trying to get a table up the stairs. Again – one is not better than the other, but there is a difference – a innovative mastery, executed with exacting precision (Keaton, not the Chuckles. But feel free to write in and disagree). In The Artist, there are points that show off Monckton’s meticulousness; battling an impeccably timed drip with various receptacles and a cup of tea. And there are points that display his mastery over his body, climbing the rickety shelves of his studio in every way except the one that seems most logical to reach than one particular paintbrush. There even are glimpses of his weird and wonderful ability to create story and empathy out of nothingness. A fruit bowl becoming a whole routine about a bananas only nightclub, narrated in poetic gibberish.
Is it unfair to compare a piece of performance, and a very good piece at that, unfavourably to what an artist has done before? If I had seen The Artist without so much anticipation, would I be raving about the best physical theatre I’ve seen since Shunt’s Amato Saltone? Probably, but I can’t expunge what I feel about Monckton and that is that he is indeed one of the very, very best and The Artist is brilliant… and could still be better.
The Artist is on at Assembly Roxy until 27 August 2018. for more information.