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  1. Culture
2 February 2011

Corporeal comedy

Jos Houben is a one-man laughter shop.

By Gina Allum

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.

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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.