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December 16, 2013 5:40 pm
Chatting before the show, director Paul Hunter of the Told By An Idiot company enthused that their first show aimed at very young audiences had meant that, instead of the usual routine of justifying particular physical or clowning segments in terms of narrative or thematic relevance, they could just say, “This bit’s in here because we really like it!” The Idiots are probably Britain’s foremost clowning theatre company – that’s “clowning” in the sense of bringing that particular technique to bear on often quite poignant material rather than as in just pratting about – but it took quite some recalibration for me to watch them, well, just pratting about.
The 45-minute show, intended for families including children as young as four, is described as being inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Dr Seuss and Pina Bausch. You can genuinely see the Bausch bits, with a motif of semi-abstract dance sequences, in which (in common with several other sequences) children from the audience are invited to join in. Also included are tumbling, musical business and conventional clowning routines such as the bowler hat filled with foam and a demonstration of how many wrong ways one can put on a pair of trousers. Connoisseurs of British clowning theatre may also fondly recognise what was once designated routine no. 99: Waiter On Elastic.
Of the four performers, Stephen Harper is particularly good at just being a big kid, pretending to rumpled dignity even while making an ultra-eccentric egg sandwich. Michael Ureta is the tumbler, Sophie Russell usually (though not always) more decorous and Elisabeth Flett principally handles the musical duties. They formed a comfortable bond with the children in the audience, but not necessarily a strong one; kids joined in freely when asked, but not conspicuously eagerly, and overall the air of the young spectators was one of polite pleasure rather than enthusiastic enjoyment.
I can’t help wondering whether that very themelessness which the company profess to find so liberating is also, crucially, a limiting factor. The children obviously do not have my expectations of the Told By An Idiot “brand”, but they may have preconceptions regarding theatre in general, even at such an age, and one such notion is that a piece have direction and purpose. Strange as it sounds, four-year-olds may on some level ask whether fun is enough.
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