I’m instantly reminded of Allan Sherman’s comedy song, “Hello Muddah, hello Faddah (…here I am at Camp Grenada”). You must be a certain age to remember that one, since it was recorded in 1963 and seemed to play incessantly on the radio during my infancy (the complaining jokes of children at dreadful summer camps wearing thinner every time)! Being a man of a certain age is a particular vulnerability for experiencing a show that is all about the male ageing process. I sat there, ticking those woeful boxes of familiarity, one-by-one!
Peeping Tom’s Father (Vader) is the second in a trilogy of family dramas, following on from Mother (Moeder), which was shown on this stage, also as part of the London International Mime Festival, a year previously. That matriarch was part of a family-run museum, which – as I recall – incorporated the surreal experiences of a living statue, a woman imprisoned in a vending machine, hands that attacked visitors through the paintings and a back office that doubled as a maternity unit and a recording studio. The father, however, occupies the increasingly familiar surroundings of an old people’s home (or, a residence for the elderly, in today’s more politically-correct parlance).
The father, Leo (a man with seven horses, one wife, and seven lovers), is brought to the home by his son, Simon, but the simple central device of this otherwise complex scenario is that the son gradually becomes the father. Leo arrives in a wheelchair, which in all respects he doesn’t need (remember those seven lovers) but it is Simon who ends up as naked as a baby, lying on a table, having his nappy changed and his bum cleaned with wet wipes (one prospective box, hopefully, never to be ticked). The heart of the narrative is courageously carried in these roles by Leo De Beul and Simon Versnel. De Beul’s long white hair, closely-cropped grey beard and wild-eyed behaviour evoked the image of the late Spike Milligan, whose own anarchic humour would have fitted well with the Peeping Tom model.
The stand-out moments in this show came in dynamic bursts of extraordinary movement in which the form of propulsion seemed to be any part of the body but the feet. Each female solo (by Yi-Chun Liu, Maria Carolina Viera and Marie Gyselbrecht) seemed to be progressively more incredible with contorted, weighty movement, somersaulting and slithering in a variety of ways that seemed improbable and even inhuman. In a bizarre image that replayed the woman in a vending machine sequence from Moeder, Yi’s head suddenly appears above the rim of a soup tureen, from which Leo has just been served, her face contorted in agony and complaining of the heat!
This old folks’ home is a forbidding place. The action takes place in a communal hall-cum-refectory with a performance platform and absurdly high walls that suggest a prison camp, an evocation given more weight by the military appearance of Hun-Mok Jun (the living statue of Moeder, now transformed into something like a North Korean prison guard). The loss of his keys sparks a bag and body search of the residents, though “inmates” might be more appropriate. This was announced by one of several brusque alerts over a tannoy, further ramping up the atmosphere of incarceration. The residents are suddenly plagued by mosquitoes in a scene so realistic that I began to itch, myself.
Despite all this, the old folk have fun. A band with an ever-changing crew perform from the stage, singing in both Flemish and English. Leo prefers the piano, shakily singing the melancholic song Feelings until dragged away by the son. It wasn’t clear whether Leo was reflecting on his feelings for the horses, the wife or the lovers but when his fingers were pulled away from the keys, the song played on. The ten “supernumeraries” – locally-sourced extras – supplementing the cast, alongside the seven members of Peeping Tom, were so well-chosen that each seemed completely integral to the performance.
The comic potential of the height of the walls is given reign by an enormous broom, so long that it could brush the flies and be swung out over several rows of the audience. And the diverse manias of Gyselbrecht, apparently the home’s neurotic manageress, scratching her arm until it bled and staring wide-eyed into some imagined world; a performance that was both unnerving and sexy, and carried on into the curtain call.
This compelling work was both funny and poignant, highly physical, visually arresting, contrasting aspects of gentle, whimsical reflection with others, too uncomfortable to bear. The direction, by Peeping Tom’s founders, Franck Chartier and Gabriela Carrizo, maintained a relentless momentum. This is a collective of remarkable performers, collaborating to create works that have the highly unusual capacity to both entertain and challenge in equal measure.