The beat goes on
This parade of novelty instruments is driven by a keen sense of rhythm
Lost and Found Orc
Onstage at the Festival Hall, there's a right racket going on. None of the noise I can hear is coming from a conventional instrument. Hoovers are wheezing, alarm clocks are squealing, and a gaggle of dancers in overalls is toe-tapping and floor-slapping. It all makes the venue look like the outhouse of an odd rag-and-bone man. And people in the audience, packed to the rafters with children, are screaming their lungs out with joy. This is Lost and Found Orchestra.
The orchestra is the new project of the founders of Stomp, the Brighton-born physical theatre group formed by Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell in 1990. The original Stomp show consisted of a group of street entertainers and alternative cabaret performers who turned everyday objects such as dustbins, buckets and brooms into percussion instruments, coupling the sounds they made with clever choreography. The project soon flourished, spawning sell-out tours internationally, as well as new Stomp companies in the UK and North America.
But Stomp had a philosophy, too. This centred around the idea of rhythm being the facet of music that was common to all cultures. Cresswell and McNicholas compared rhythm to the human heartbeat, which had a stronger resonance onstage when manipulated by performers of different races and genders. Melody was unnecessary: the rhythm was the thing.
So why have the show's founders turned to melody now? Cynics may put it down to them hearing the distant whirrings of a cash register, but they ascribe it to the enjoyment they have experienced contributing to film soundtracks. Then there is their desire to create new instruments and see these being bowed, plucked and blown, as well as beaten.
Yet, after tonight's performance, it is clear that rhythm is still key to the power of their projects. Take the impressive opening sequence, in which a peculiar-looking man saunters on to the stage clutching a double-bass case. Instead of opening it, he hits it on the top, back and sides, and then other odd fellows bring other cases along to give them their very own, differently tuned, slaps and tickles. Later on, car horns are played from the basket of a bike and filled canisters of water are turned into timpani. The melodies that come from them occasionally recall West African highlife and folk music from Indonesia, but the bulk of the tunes, sadly, drift forgettably away. Only when the notes are set against syncopated beats do they really come alive.
However, the visual impact of this show gets you through the dull moments, even after you've seen a "plumpet" - a trumpet made with a tube and a funnel - for about the 45th time. Often the cast members employ humour, but this has mixed results. The use of two performers, for instance, one short and one tall, doing skits with hammers and nails, gets dull very quickly. Much funnier are the subtler touches in the set: the use of a conductor in smart tails and ripped jeans, or the man who lobs a basketball, straight on, at a gong.
On the night I visited, the best moment came when six dancers swung from the ceiling, wearing tutus made out of carrier bags. Their presentation choreographed to perfection, each swung towards a pipe, which they hit in different combinations. The sight of them floating through the air, plastic skirts rustling as they moved, offered the troupe's own twisted take on Cirque du Soleil.
But Lost and Found Orchestra is not doing anything particularly new. Much better experimental musicians have been making bright, funny melodies from found sounds for decades, the German composer Gerard Hoffnung even writing a suite for four Hoovers, first performed on this same stage a half-century ago.
Tonight's performance would have been more interesting with a few more educational touches. The performers could have told us how their instruments were made, for example, especially as so many of the musicians, the programme reveals to us, are classically trained. And more links could have been made between these scrappy inventions and the primitive beginnings of real orchestras; the links between them are so vast and so vital. Still, given the way the audiences are reacting, maybe people simply prefer to come on down and feel the noise.
Runs until 11 January. Bookings: www.southbankcentre.org.uk
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