The Pit, Barbican, Lodnon
January 16, 2018
Bêtes de Foire (‘Beasts of the fair’) did not get off to the best of starts. Notwithstanding that the Barbican is not the most brightly lit of venues and The Pit is aptly named, the audience were plunged into darkness as they stumbled along the dog leg to their seats. Just as the eyes might be adjusting, the performers, wielding LED torches in flailing hands, stabbed everyone in the eye with bright light. A log jam quickly built up as the again largely sightless audience continued to grope their way to their seats. The show finally started nearly 15 minutes late.
A circular floor is surrounded by a jumble of props and costumes arrayed on shelves. Elsa de Witte sits at a sewing machine, which with sewing shears, provides a sound accompaniment to Laurent Cabrol, who spent approximately one quarter of the total performance time juggling hats. There were a lot of children in the audience found it hilarious. I have to say, I did not.
Later, Cabrol treats everyone to similar, elongated sections of juggling with rubber balls and ping pong balls stuffed into his mouth. A lot of time is spent gurning which the children again clearly found extremely funny. Whilst the ping pong balls were ejected from his mouth, the rubber balls were juggled at floor level which, from the end of only the third row, were largely invisible. The hats then made a comeback.
All this is interspersed with two large, grotesque puppets, one on a frame that works a drum and half a concertina while rotating, the other on a bicycle, balancing on a rope. The set-up time for most of the tricks was interminable, the actual action comprising probably no more than 20 minutes or so of the 65 minutes running time. Almost inevitably, anything that finally occurred was anti-climactical.
A miniature poodle-type crossbreed, Sokha, demonstrated that someone has a reasonable grasp of operant conditioning by performing reliably as a deliberately reluctant circus dog. There was much lying down, chin on paws. Expressionless and in dim lighting, the black dog was expressionless. It looked not unlike a deflated woolly balloon. I know how it felt.
de Witte ended the evening with the classic double puppet gag, the performer using arms and legs whilst bent over, to create two characters. This was better and reasonably entertaining but, again, overly-long.
While the performers are undoubtedly accomplished, Bêtes de Foire does hang together as a cohesive, theatrical whole. It was impossible not to think of a master such as James Thierrée who creates similar worlds that draw one in from the outset, each prop and action blending seamlessly. Cabrol and de Witte gesture for the audience to look at them whilst not managing to create credible, even though surreal, characters.
The whole evening was over-long, dimly lit and desperately slow. This was Bêtes de Foire’s UK debut. They need to be a lot more slick.