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I began by feeling deeply resistant to all wear bowlers, which opens with two silent film stars, in Laurel and Hardy-like bowlers and suits, falling out of a screen and on to the stage. There follows a routine stepping in and out of the film on screen – a neat trick they pull off with expert timing, but that goes on so long you fear the performers are going to enjoy themselves more than the audience does. But Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford (of the American company rainpan 43) build on this scenario so cleverly and perform with such skill and pathos, that by the end I was won over.
The characters, Earnest and Wyatt, find themselves trapped in a world in which the laws of vaudeville apply. Eggs magically appear in their mouths, but when the men try to eat them, they dart out of reach. They find a shovel and a ladder and decide to dig a hole in the roof, a plan that results in a dazzling slapstick routine with Earnest dangling precariously from the rafters, while Wyatt runs to and fro attempting to plant the recalcitrant stepladder beneath his feet. There is a comic squabble over a copy of the Financial Times, which emerges, judging by their reactions, as a rather racy publication.
The show pays homage to the comic timing of the silent movie stars, but it also evolves to become increasingly surreal. There are clear echoes of Beckett’s bowler-hatted tramps, as the men find themselves trapped in limbo and unable to return to their screen world (itself a barren wasteland). And their antics are driven by a gathering terror. But the show also has a pleasing line in postmodern self-mockery. At one point the due steal two seats from the auditorium and sit facing the audience, waiting for them to perform. Naturally, nothing happens. “I don’t get it,” mutters Wyatt. “Avant-garde,” hisses Earnest. “So many layers!”
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