Kicking off the London International Mime Festival at the Southbank is Lebensraum by Swedish-born theatre-maker Jakop Ahlbom, described as ‘a wordless show based on Buster Keaton’s silent movie, The Scarecrow. The film features a house filled with labour-saving Rube Goldberg devices and a love triangle; Lebensraum has an adamantine edge, more Berlin-Burlesque than Goldberg cartoon.
Two inventors have breakfast and then work on their new creation, a robot, decidedly female, to cover the household chores. Re-booted and hot-wired, chaos ensues as she executes her own, literal ideas about servitude and etiquette, and the two lead to an inevitable fall.
‘I create my own world,’ the opening song, serves for the whole. Ahlbom uses illusion, acrobatics and music to construct his liminal world; at times bizarre but always recognisable. So musicians meld with the wall paper, sing like medieval troubadours, yet lead us through the action to a forest and a candle.
Illumination is its own art design, created by Yuri Schreuders. The fridge, piano and other household goods have their own life, while the stage is lit by outsize lamps and covered lampshades in rich burnished tones. The set, design by Douwe Hibma and Jakop Ahlbom, is ingenious: pullies and traction make objects fly-in, while concealed flaps and tricksy trompe d’oeil, play with expectation.
The experience is a bit Heath Robinson, a bit Wallace and Gromit, as people, objects disappear, reappear, defy gravity and in a wonderful coup de theatre, forward roll through a picture of Buster Keaton, whose own brand of slapstick comedy and lugubrious looks is the main inspiration behind the piece. It is a visual treat.
Reinier Schimmel, Silke Hundermark and Yannick Greweldinger are superb performers, taking mime and clowning to a whole new level. Empee Howerda and Leonard Lucieer of indie-band Alamo Race Track, use a solid rock bass and inscrutable white faces to add more than a touch of menace, while the trio deliver some fantastic set pieces with break-neck speed and precision; the 70 minutes goes by in a pacey blur.
Lebensraum, the German for living space, was an important part of Nazi Party ideology in promoting German expansionism, as a law of nature. ‘This joyful and engaging show is suitable for age seven and up,’ details the publicity, but don’t be fooled this piece has a sting in its tail.