Monday, January 24, 2011

Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl

Last week I saw Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl at the Barbican.

The short play centres on two admin gophers in a non-descript American convenience foods superstore. Gerry, played by Geoff Sobelle, is a sort of scruffy middle-manager who lives in the office bin; Rhoda, played by Charlotte Ford, is his gawky, whiny secretary who desperately wants to be sexy. Both are neurotic, obsessive and live an ordered, suppressed non-life. Geoff's inability to either successfully swat or ignore a buzzing fly, and Rhoda's guilty and constant Wotsit-munching sum up their powerless, unfulfilled, tedious existences.

BUT ONE DAY, with bathos and frustration already at fever pitch thanks to an unappreciated memo, noisy microwave and overly effective flypaper, ORDER AND RESTRAINT DISINTEGRATE. Rhoda reads out a news report about a pack of captured chimps murdering one of their own, and base and revolutionary instincts in the pair erupt. A deranged Gerry devours Rhoda's ready-meal, the pair do it like they do on the Discovery Channel in an unstable dumpster, and a sexually awakened Rhoda prowls round the office wreaking havoc. The degeneration is mirrored, or perhaps provoked, by the sudden appearance of nature in the office. First a bit of ivy creeps out of a drawer, then a stuffed weasel jumps out from behind a desk, escalating until the set is dripping with vines and taxidermy.

The message is unmistakable: "hey, don't ignore the natural world, and remember that we too are all animals". Nothing new – it's not a million miles from Day of the Triffids – and subtle it ain't. But by the time rabbits, pheasants, rams and deers have invaded the stage, and an uncomfortably life-like bear has mauled the protagonists (in front of a corporate video showing industrial food processing), you don't feel short-changed.

The balance between horror and comedy was perfectly struck. To my surprise, given it was part of the London International Mime Festival, there wasn't a beret or glass box in sight and the show wasn't silent. There were, however, long periods without script, admirably kept alive by tension, the eerie or absurd appearance of a stuffed fox or two, and the sheer physicality of the performers. Indeed, Sobelle and Ford each appear to be a blend of actor and clown: even leaving physical comedy aside, the characters are defined by their failings, and reveal their true selves in spite of their best efforts to project a casual, flirtatious or cool image – very clownish traits, as Sobelle noted in the post-show Q&A.

Flesh and Blood is inventive, funny, apocalyptic and a worthy winner of a Fringe First award last year. The show was first conceived in Philadelphia something like 7 years ago, and has appeared in various incarnations since, so keep your eyes peeled. And steer clear of ready-meals in the meantime.

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