The great comedians of the silent film era often loom over modern mime shows – here the debt is explicit. Lebensraum, created by the Swedish, Netherlands-based performer/director Jakop Ahlbom, is a homage to his boyhood hero Buster Keaton.
Ahlbom’s previous show Horror was a highlight of the 2015 London International Mime Festival and returned last year for an extended run. A clear love of horror movies and a highly inventive use of their tropes powered his unsettling tale of a haunted house. This time round, his 70-minute festival contribution has a much simpler story arc and, despite its oddly Third Reich-reminiscent title, stands as a gentle-spirited exercise in first-class clowning.
A lovingly recreated tribute to the house-in-one-room in Keaton’s short film The Scarecrow – full of space- and labour-saving devices that would make Wallace and Gromit proud – is the jumping-off point. The bed folds up to become a wardrobe/piano; the breakfast accoutrements are hung above the table in a complex web of ropes and pulleys, and the toast rack is on wheels. Leonard Lucieer and Empee Holwerda – blending so cunningly into the wallpaper that at first you don’t see them – perform Alamo Race Track’s soundtrack live on stage.
Ahlbom (pale-faced and in full Keaton mode) and Reinier Schimmel are the co-dependent, passive-aggressive housemates negotiating this space, sometimes less successfully than others – slapstick mishaps abound. Together they have created a full-sized mannequin woman, and squabble over her role in the house – girlfriend or maidservant? When the mannequin comes to life, though, she has very different ideas about her place in this home.
There are some extremely demanding physical comedy routines incorporated into Lebensraum. Even some of the throwaways are wince-inducing: Ahlbom’s morning exercise routine, for instance, during which he manages to pull both legs out from under himself and land hard on his bottom. The potential for disaster seems perilously close very often as the farcical pace picks up and he and Schimmel hurl themselves through windows and totter on ladders.
Silke Hundertmark’s turn as the mannequin, though, really steals the show. You marvel at everything she does, from her fixed blank-eyed smile to the extraordinary physical control that means she can stay rigid even while being tossed through the air. She runs amok with charmingly malicious glee – there’s even a hint of Horror when Ahlbom and the musicians seem to have been possessed by her malign spirit. The spell is broken by a piece of stage trickery that still has me confounded.