Thick & Tight
SHORT & SWEET
Part of London International Mime Festival
London, Barbican Pit
26 January 2022
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Is lip-syncing mime? Is it a high camp drag act speciality or could it be contemporary dance choreography? In the case of Thick & Tight, the ten-year-old company run by Eleanor Perry and Daniel Hay-Gordon, it’s all three. Their latest ‘thoroughly modern variety show’ was presented at the Barbican under the banner of the London International Mime Festival. Perry and Hay-Gordon trained at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance and the soloists in the show are professional dancers: Harry Alexander, Oxana Panchenko, Connor Scott and Azara Meghie, poet and activist. Included in the programme are members of Corali Dance Company and the Camberwell Incredibles, learning-diverse groups who have recreated Thick & Tight’s early work, Ode to Edith, in honour of Edith Sitwell. Short & Sweet is a very mixed bill, ranging from the arcane to the absurd, celebrating otherness with lots of laughter.
The opening number was inscrutable, partly because of the absence of Eleanor Perry, due to Covid, who was to have been one of Two Moths in Real Time. The duet for her and Hay-Gordon, commissioned by the Noh Reimagined Festival, apparently involved extensive research and training in Japanese theatre, both Noh and its comic counterpart, Kyogen. What we saw was Hay-Gordon isolated on one side of the stage, lit by a single bulb as he hovered and gyrated to a mélange of music. Costumed in a transparent playsuit with a dark apron and with antennae sprouting from the back of his head, he appeared as intangible as a moth. As a curtain raiser to the cabaret evening, it was mystifying.
Two tributes followed to ‘famous and infamous characters’. Connor Scott’s Vicious solo channelled the Sex Pistols’ manic energy. He lip-synced while dancing frenetically to a recording of Sid Vicious’s murdering of Frank Sinatra’s version of My Way. Scott is an electrifying performer, capturing the fragility of delinquent Sid (John Ritchie) beneath his punk rocker contortions.
Azara Meghie’s homage to tall, androgynous Grace Jones in Finding Grace was a powerful act of identification from a short, defiant breakdancer, chanting in rhyme about her discoveries: ‘Who knew that there were so many similarities between Grace and me?’ Her voice is very much her own, as is her punchy dancing. Like Grace, she’s bold and confrontational, stripping to her underwear and shaking her booty to rap music with rude lyrics.
Grace had an unhappy childhood, as did the poet Edith Sitwell, who spoke candidly about her early years with John Freeman, in a 1959 Face to Face interview. Corali performers in robes, and black headdresses like Sitwell’s, lip-synced to the confessional conversation, with a breakout dance by Housni (DJ) Hassan, revelling in his eccentricity. Led by Hay-Gordon, they paraded with Sitwell masks, while Camberwell members made cameo appearances on screen in colourful costumes. Like Edith, Grace and Azara, the performers were proud to celebrate their uniqueness.
The second half opened with Hay-Gordon lip-syncing in drag to a sweetly hilarious American woman’s voice extolling the joys of curtains. The original, much-watched clip on YouTube is of a middle-aged woman wittering on for an amateur commercial for her local shop. Hay-Gordon mimed her enthusiasm while co-conspirator Tim Spooner looked unconvinced through a hole in a curtain bearing multiple images of his face. Curtain Lady is a four-minute delight.
Harry Alexander’s Twiggy outlived its initial gag of a 6ft 3 inches guy in a mini dress impersonating tiny Twiggy (Lesley Lawson) at the start of her 1960s career as a skinny model. Funnier and more disconcerting was Oxana Panchenko as a diminutive Rasputin in a monkish outfit that revealed how well-endowed he was rumoured to be. The sonorous voices of a Russian male choir were soon supplanted by Boney M singing Ra Ra Rasputin, ‘Russia’s greatest love machine’.
The substantial closing number, We Could Go On and On, is billed as a new avant-garde musical starring the composer John Cage and chanteuse Elaine Page. Perry and Hay-Gordon specialise in juxtaposing real-life personalities from seemingly unconnected cultural spheres – a device Tom Stoppard has used in a number of his plays. By intercutting interviews, Cage and Paige seem to be discussing the difference between music and sound, time and space, the nature of memory and the significance of cats and chess. Paige refers to Tim Rice, Cage to Marcel Duchamp and Immanuel Kant. Both laugh a lot. As Cage paraphrases Kant: ‘There are two things that don’t have to mean anything. One is music and the other is laughter.’
Absent Perry appeared on video, projected onto the wall behind Hay-Gordon, lip-syncing as they mimed/danced to the recorded voices and relevant snatches of music. Meaningless (or maybe not in an absurd world), their Cage/Paige creation bears mischievous comparison with Crystal Pite’s lip-syncing contemporary dance choreography in Betroffenheit and The Statement. The Thick & Tight mashup is so surreal and so funny that it’s well worth looking up the words and music credits on their helpful website. How clever to have substituted video for Perry’s personal contribution and made the result a success, undefeated by Covid precautions!