Imagine a bare blue stage and a man tap-dancing to Max Bygraves's version of the song "You Need Hands". He scoops up a wire-mesh sculpture of an old man and strikes up a conversation with it. In a darkened room in another part of town, beetles scamper through a human skull, watched over by a tatty, two-foot munchkin waving a bayonet. Elsewhere, fluorescent 20-foot poles are performing a ballet on stage, dancing in midair all on their own. Just a few Tube stops away, there's sex on legs - a naked man engulfed by shop mannequin limbs wearing sheer black stockings and suspenders.
Now sweep those images from your mind and picture a silent, white-faced man dressed as a clown with a limp daisy sprouting from his lapel. He is leaning into an invisible storm, the gale-force wind trying to knock him off his feet. What's going on? No problem: it's mime. But the same is true of the other images, all of which are scenes from shows being performed as part of the International Mime Festival at venues across London this month.
The only ingredient missing from the festival is those silent clowns, as created by the French mime icon Marcel Marceau. Instead, audiences can expect speech, song, dance, puppets, circus, cookery, giant digital images, nudity, aerial acrobatics, automata and animatronics. Mime today seems to include just about anything.
As the festival enters its 30th year, however, some awkward questions are becoming inevitable. If mime can now mean almost anything, perhaps the concept has been stretched to the point where it means nothing at all. The word "mime" may distract more than it illuminates. Do today's theatregoers really need a festival of mime? The Berlin-based performer Hajo Schuler, who is bringing his theatre company Familie Floz to the festival, is no fan of the label. "We refuse to use the word mime," he says, "because it creates so much confusion. When people hear it, pictures come into their heads which have nothing to do with us." In Schuler's show Ristorante Immortale, the performers speak, dance and wear huge surreal masks to tell the Beckettian tale of a restaurant that never attracts any customers.
Andrew Dawson, whose tap-dance to Max Bygraves recalls his dead father, uses speech, sound and film in his show Absence and Presence. "Many people are stuck in the past when they think about mime," he admits, "especially in the UK. We have a long text-based tradition of theatre stretching back to Shakespeare. Mime is Marcel Marceau or those 'living statues' busking in the high street." When Dawson and his partner Gavin Robertson performed their kitsch physical theatre show Thunderbirds FAB (based on the 1960s TV puppets) back in 1984, it caused a sensation. Nothing so close to mime had ever made it into the West End before. But why is the British public less open to more serious mime work? Would people be more willing to try out these shows if the troublesome mime label were not attached?
"If we thought that, we'd stop doing the festival," insists its co-director Helen Lannaghan. "But we know nothing else would be as good at launching new talent as we are. New artists struggling alone in fringe venues are easy to ignore, but we can bring them to the attention of the press, new audiences and international booking agents. Audiences come to us to be surprised. We no longer debate what mime does or doesn't mean."
Gavin Glover of Faulty Optic, a company bringing grungy, adult puppetry to the festival, agrees. "Mime may sound a slightly old-fashioned word today but it's really quite liberating. I would define it as any theatre which focuses on movement. Using puppets and animation, we aren't tied to our own bodies - one gen-der, a certain age - to do that. We can be or do anything we like." Glover's creepy munchkins are influenced by the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, and are into sex, death, comedy and horror in a big way. "Faulty Optic have a huge cult fan base," says Lannaghan, who is encouraged that British audiences appear to be rising above their prejudice against the perceived "foreignness" of visual or physical theatre.
For Lannaghan, the best proof of this is the increasing absorption of physical theatre into the mainstream: Complicite at the National Theatre, Ridiculusmus at the Barbican. "New puppetry" also features in the National's adaptations of Philip Pullman's fantasy extravaganzas and in the West End's Lion King.
We may no longer know exactly how to define mime, but increasingly we know it when we see it. And Lannaghan anticipates physical theatre becoming more - not less - popular as globalisation creates an international culture alongside an international economy. "We don't worry any more which end of our funny, rubbery, shape-shifting world a performance should fit into," she says. "We're hungry for new ideas. If it makes theatrical magic, that's good enough for us."
The London International Mime Festival runs from 11-29 January. For further details call: 020 7637 5661. www.mimefest.co.uk