Stephen Harper in ‘Get Happy’, Told By An Idiot’s show for children
Stephen Harper in ‘Get Happy’, Told By An Idiot’s show for children © Hugo Glendinning

Paul Hunter is due in the rehearsal room upstairs. His cast has been waiting for 20 minutes. Hayley Carmichael has an appointment in town. Yet neither of them can stop talking. Each thing one says seems to trigger an extra thought in the other, like a conversational Newton’s Cradle. Both stand up and put their coats on. Still, they keep talking. All the way out the door. It’s both competitive and comical: a double act fighting for the last word.

This, one suspects, is the secret behind Told By An Idiot. Twenty years and 25 shows after the pair formed the company with their former teacher John Wright, Hunter and Carmichael still click creatively. They are two very different minds – Hunter is logical and linguistic; Carmichael, free-associating and sensitive – but both bubble nonstop with ideas about theatre, art and life.

Back in 1993, the pair set out to make a piece for the Edinburgh Fringe festival, inspired by Complicite’s early success and “a big explosion of what was then called physical theatre”. They weren’t the only ones. Frantic Assembly and Hoipolloi are the same age; Improbable and Peepolykus, slightly younger. Between them, these companies have shifted the landscape of British theatre, shaping a traditionally writer-centric culture into today’s mixed ecology.

Even so, the Idiots still feel like outsiders. “Because we don’t work in that psychological, literal way,” says Hunter, “people still have a preconception about the things that they feel we should do.” He points to their work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for which they devised a clownish version of A Comedy of Errors – “the most comedic, anarchic one in the canon” – and what he calls “a fantastical, children’s fairytale”, The Mouse and His Child.

The advantage of turning 20 is that “people trust you slightly more” – and in recent years, Told By An Idiot has hit a rich seam. Next week, the company opens its third show of 2013, an anarchic children’s show called Get Happy, to follow a 19th-century Russian farce and a goofy meta-theatrical collaboration with Edward Petherbridge about the stroke that stopped him playing King Lear. Next year, they’re devising a piece about a 1970s children’s television programme (not, Hunter stresses, “an overt response” to the Jimmy Savile scandal) before staging a Feydeau farce in Northampton.

“I don’t think we have a formula,” Carmichael says – yet there are Told By An Idiot hallmarks. Hunter recalls: “A lot of stuff that was coming out of Lecoq [the Parisian school of physical theatre] when we started was balanced in favour of style or technique.” The Idiots, by contrast, sought out stories. “We were quite faithful to the originals. It was like a cover version.”

Their source materials tended, Carmichael says, to be “very bleak and rather terrible”. “But we knew we wanted to make them funny. The tragedy took care of itself,” she says.

That tonal tension is arguably the Idiots’ stock in trade. They mix hard thinking with tomfoolery in a rare breed of cerebral stupidity. Difficult topics are subjected to clowning and screwball comedy. Previous shows have included a romp-style look at Alzheimer’s disease and have set terrorist groups on Grace Brothers, department store of the 1970s British TV comedy Are You Being Served? “I’m very mistrustful of a piece that’s devoid of humour,” Hunter says. “I’m not saying I always want to laugh, but when you take the comedy out entirely, I question what you’re left with.”

Never Try This At Home, the forthcoming 1970s-inspired show, will employ the same tactic. When the Birmingham Rep asked for an idea related to the Midlands, all Hunter could come up with was his appearance, aged eight, on children’s TV programme Tiswas, which was made by ATV in Birmingham. “I was put in a cage and had ice thrown at me.”

The show is framed as a televised reunion of the presenters of Shushi, a fictional Saturday morning show cancelled after one disastrous episode involving an on-air suicide attempt and hostage situation. “It looks at a certain type of behaviour that, historically, people – particularly men – were allowed to get away with,” says Hunter. Carmichael is fascinated by the “anger in people, the real rage, when what was once absolutely normal ceases to be acceptable”.

In mixing this “very black comedy” with the energy of children’s TV, the Idiots have discovered a recipe for onstage anarchy. The company is “interested in theatre that teeters on the edge of being out of control” and seeks a “sense of spontaneity”.

This is at the heart of Get Happy, which will explore “the idea of anarchy for a very young audience” at the Barbican in London. After years of going to children’s theatre with his daughter, now aged seven, Hunter believes it holds back too often. “If two characters were having a pillow fight, they wouldn’t really fight. They’d play at it.”

Get Happy’s aim is not violence, but chaos. The intention is that none of its scenes – a man dives into a paddling pool, a man struggles to put his trousers on – relate to each other. “We constantly get seduced by narrative,” says Hunter. “I want something where we play Bruce Springsteen one moment and classical violin the next.”

That’s liberating, because it jettisons the need to rationalise: a fundamental element of the Idiots’ process. “We’re often more interested in the how than the why, because the question ‘how’ keeps things open. It’s about possibilities.” Their rehearsals are guided by a similar instinct: “If the performers get off on it, it’s a good indication that we’re on to something.”

That’s why, says Hunter, they focus on the lazzo – a commedia dell’arte term for a comic routine – more than a scene’s psychology. “We never attempt to put reality onstage. David Hare does that. It’s our duty to explode the moment.”

‘Get Happy’, Barbican Centre, December 12-29. ‘Never Try This At Home’, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, February 27-March 15.

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