Mime: The gloves are off

London International Mime Festival - review.

Performers rehearsing during a previous London International Mime Festival.
Performers rehearsing during a previous London International Mime Festival. Photograph: Getty Images

London International Mime Festival
 Various venues

Sometimes mesmerising, sometimes excruciatingly monotonous – there’s no bag more mixed than the London International Mime Festival. More often than not, it includes one or two of the most astonishingly original shows you’ll see all year but guessing which it will be comes down to pot luck. To find the stonkers, you’ve got to sit through a variety of stinkers.

Invisible ropes and glass boxes have long been off-limits. The artistic directors Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan have pulled together an eclectic assortment of clowning and puppetry, circus and dance. However, this time around, they seem to have latched on to the 21st-century equivalent: camera trickery. Just like Marcel Marceau, the camera can make the impossible possible.

In Leo, Circle of Eleven gives us a gravitydefying clown in a waiting room. Onstage, William Bonnet lies on his side, his feet planted on an wall. On a screen next to him, however, rotated 90 degrees, he is seen standing up, nonchalantly leaning back. It’s a simple trick played to its fullest (albeit also exhausted, then overstretched). He throws his tie off and it boomerangs back. His suitcase clings to the wall. Water gets stuck in its bottle. Suddenly, Bonnet is walking, jiving and handspringing up the walls in a deliriously giddy routine. His best move takes nothing more than standing up straight. That’s the topsy-turviness of Leo: what seems most casual on-screen takes abdomen clenching control.

The technique recurs in Compagnie 111’s Plan B, only with the camera looking down from above. Two men play catch with a third lying plank-flat on a wheeled caster. Another takes off like Superman. This time, though, it feels like a frivolous indulgence, out of kilter with the poignant, witty existentialism that comes before. Compagnie 111’s director, Aurélien Bory, makes circus that reads like theatre. Every routine in Plan B – ticklish juggling, springy acrobatics – takes on metaphoric significance. He starts with four men in suits somersaulting around a 30-degree slope. They could be bankers dancing on a ledge, taunting both death and blue collars below. One moment, they give each other leg-ups; the next, they trample one another down. Piggybacks follow leapfrogs. Collaboration and competition alternate and then suddenly one plops, bum-first, through a hole in the floor and disappears. Plan B never matches Bory’s best but it makes you long to see what might have happened had Danny Boyle not pipped him to the Olympics’ opening ceremony.

In contemporary circus, it’s not what you can do that counts but what you do with it. Not Until We Are Lost by the Welsh outfit Ockham’s Razor is short on virtuosity but full of warmth and whimsy. The members of a Blyton-esque gang – think “Five Go Scrambling on Scaffolding” – are best when they become their own trapezes and swing each other around above our heads but the show is one set piece short of satisfaction. Nonetheless, the immersive promenade set-up works a treat, with choristers mingling in our midst and the air swooshing past our faces.

My!Laika gives us a scrappier, edgier affair in Popcorn Machine, which replicates the rhythms of a kernel eruption. Acts in this “domestic apocalypse” start gently, then burst forth. A juggling turn explodes into a monsoon of false limbs. Two women start a catfight, tossing one another around by the hair. A trapeze artist dislocates her shoulders and spins ever faster. It’s exhilarating and unsettling stuff, teetering on the edge of control.

That’s more of a problem in The Cardinals by the Birmingham-based Stan’s Café. Helped by a hijab-wearing Muslim stagehand, three Catholic dignitaries whip through the Bible’s best bits in a shoddy miniature theatre. Is it an exploration of religious discord, a critique of Christian education or a warning against contemporary sin, as modern Babels, corporate Goliaths and floods loom into view? All are glanced off but none driven home and, over two hours, the knowing amateurism grows too tiresome to compensate.

The puppeteers Blind Summit also outstay their welcome in The Heads. Three bald, disembodied faces hover in three picture frames. They catch one another’s eye and start to play, whizzing between frames, huddling together, multiplying, vanishing. It’s an entrancing and eerie magic-eye trick that’s eventually wrung bone-dry. Other games emerge – books spilling letters, cloud patterns playing peekaboo and, best of all, flowers that morph into ballerinas – but each can only exhaust its possibilities until the beguiling becomes boring. It’s a nifty sideshow but too detachedly abstract to fill an hour.

Nor do they need to. It takes Invisible Thread 20 minutes to whistle from quickfire Laurel and Hardy slapstick – no mean feat with two potato-headed, tabletop puppets – to social satire. Less is more, they say, and the rugged puppetry of Les Hommes Vides is as sharp as they come. But ten days in, I was still waiting for that absolute stonker.

The festival runs until 27 January