Theatre - Amy Rosenthal is left speechless by a devised play that defies definition
A Little Fantasy, devised and performed by the multitalented company Told by an Idiot, was developed as part of the London International Mime Festival, but it is more than a mime show. Part mime, part dance, with lush music and spare dialogue, it defies definition.
At first, Naomi Wilkinson's set appears to be nothing more than bleached grey raked seating with a stack of hay or grass in the top right corner. But as the show progresses, it becomes, among other things, a farm, a cinema, a bowling alley, the ocean and even a two-seater plane. Sensitively lit by John Mackenzie and exploited with skill and invention by director Paul Hunter, its cunning trapdoors lift and close, water drenches the actors from nowhere and each location feels momentarily real.
Inspired by the short stories of Mary Flannery O'Connor, the plot is not easy to explain. Indeed, it initially seems to be a series of bizarre and engaging vignettes. In the first, a mother and daughter wordlessly pursue an invisible rooster until they catch it, put a bag over its head and cut its throat. Perched on the haystack in a dim light, another actor makes the sounds of the animal. Not a word needs to be spoken in this superb mime; we believe absolutely in the life and death of the rooster.
Having bagged their bird, Mrs Hopewell and young Lucy May receive a curious visitor. Superbly played by the diminutive Lisa Hammond, Lana Wilson purports to be selling Bibles, but what she actually does is briefly seduce Mrs Hopewell's hapless son and make off with his wooden leg. One might wonder what place there is in the world for a Bible-flogging kleptomaniac with a wooden leg in her handbag. But then Lana crosses paths with Carol (the excellent Hayley Carmichael), a bottle-blonde Southern belle who is in love with Gonga, a gorilla-suited movie star. When he rejects her, Carol's life is robbed of meaning, and like Lana she's a misfit in the world. Then the misfits find each other, and the adventure begins.
Meanwhile, in the more earthbound subplot, Enoch Baxter (Ged Simmonds) vacillates over leaving his wife, Eloise, (Jane Guernier) for his mistress Bonny (Rachel Donovan).
Lana and Carol embark on a life of zany crime, in a plot so wildly unpredictable and so well directed that our attention never wavers. There is always something happening, the stage is never empty and every transition into a new scene is seamless, covered by Iain Johnstone's delicious, bluesy music and Frank McConnell's deft choreography. Thus with a minimum of dialogue and a joyful disregard for exposition, we are swept into the world of the play and not, as so often occurs in the theatre, into a little fantasy of our own.
The five actors, who between them play all the parts, are amazingly versatile, both clownish and wholly convincing. They are masters of mime (when they sit munching imaginary poultry, there is no doubt about what they are eating) and each one of them captures exquisitely the tragicomic sensibility of the piece. At times achingly tender, it never strays into sentimentality, and the pathos is always undercut by jubilant humour.
Flannery O'Connor believed "the truth doesn't change according to our ability to stomach it". The world she wrote about was a tough one, and similarly A Little Fantasy is full of injustice and immorality. Lana and Carol are lawless and self-serving, robbing the trusting Bonny and allowing her to be imprisoned for their crime. Despite this, we love them for their embrace of life and for their friendship, which is a love story in itself. At the ambiguous end, when Carol appears to have drowned, it is almost unbearable to think that having found her soul mate, Lana is going to be alone again in such a cruel world.
A Little Fantasy is unlike anything you'll have seen before. Imaginative, touching and hilarious, this is devised theatre at its best, and the obvious solidarity of the company gives it a polish sometimes lacking in such work. It's a magical event.
A Little Fantasy is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100) until 1 February
Sheridan Morley is away