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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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism