Corporeal comedy

Jos Houben is a one-man laughter shop.

Everything you thought you knew about mime is probably wrong. Robots, "adult" puppets, circus and animation -- even a show based on the cycles of a washing machine -- were all on the bill at the London International Mime Festival, which closed this weekend. It's the longest-established international theatre season in the city (that you've never heard of), and I went to see two shows -- one a lecture, one a circus piece with dance elements -- that couldn't be further removed from the cream-faced loons of popular imagination.

So, first: what makes you laugh? That sneezing panda off YouTube, perhaps? Or Jack Whitehall's little-boy bluster and angst? Well, according to Jos Houben, in his comedy masterclass The Art of Laughter, the rules are simple. Mechanical, even. And, pace everyone else who might have an opinion on this, he does have form. He was an original member of Complicite (Perrier comedy award winner) and director of The Right Size (Olivier awards for best entertainment and best new comedy). That's some silverware for an unassuming Belgian. Of course, being un belge, Houben is already pretty much hilarious as far as the French are concerned.

In his presentation, he zones his body -- pelvis, chest, head, and so on -- and gives us a quick anthropological tour of typical clusters of movements associated with each zone. The Mediterranean pose, for example, tends to push the pelvis forward (think Benidorm beach swagger), whereas the British one tends to tip the pelvis back. Already, the audience is laughing in recognition. He also showcases different levels of tension, which for him are inversely proportionate to hierarchical place. He mischievously takes off the Queen and the Pope as examples of the top brass, and they barely move at all: tiny inclinations of the head, a wobbling hand; virtually incorporeal.

And, he suggests, our aspirant, evolutionary prize of verticality is potentially our biggest and funniest downfall: as we tip away from the vertical, so we tip away from our dignity. He illustrates trips, pratfalls and double takes that play our laughter as though he were settling down to a familiar and wholly predictable instrument.

Perhaps all this fractionalising of the body is reductive -- and there's no accounting for sneezing pandas or riffing comedians -- but his thesis patently works. He's a one-man laughter shop. This is partly down to his preternatural timing, a god-sent boon that surely no masterclass can teach: even as a young child, Houben was entertaining his family with physical representations of cheeses, which for him were onomatopoeic in nature. He makes like a camembert for us: starting with the firm exterior of "ca" and moving through its soft centre to the oozing, spreading of "be-e-e-ert", with arms stretched wide. Blessed are the cheesemakers, indeed.

The second of this week's shows also tinkers around with notions of imbalance, though it's fair to say with fewer laughs. Mathurin Bolze's Du Goudron et des Plumes, at the Barbican, places its performers on a suspended platform and has them play acrobatic, gravity-defying games as they variously collaborate, fight and make up. They continually push one another out of inertia, crashing into each other like human executive toys, with a resulting wild and explosive energy. And while they're at it, they reshape and trash their mini-ecosystem as it suits.

The platform itself is unstable, a floating ark, which rises and falls and sways violently from side to side: it's a Petit Prince earthlet, with its own steampunk sun in the form of a suspension light. It starts out pristine, as the actors lean over the railings and mess about on the gangplank, but is gradually pimped up and tricked out in a botched bricolage of planks, garlands and flowerpots. It ends up pretty much destroyed by DIY, with shredded paper, plastic and polystyrene littering the floor.

The performers' extraordinary skill as they leap, teeter and fly about this fragile space pushes to the limit their balance and strength, and creates some truly arresting images. At one point in the show the marooned raft is hoisted high off the stage. When it suddenly flips to a terrifying gradient, they suspend themselves at the same angle, as though floating. Another time they all hang underneath, like a colony of sea creatures under drifting debris.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser