Acrojou have previously performed thoughtful, artistic work on German Wheels (like ‘Dust’ and ‘The Wheel House’) at street theatre festivals and circus events but this is their first full-length theatre show, which is touring until the end of March. Since this could well be the first ever show produced and performed by German Wheel artists, it’s hard to know what to expect - and the publicity doesn’t much help.
The show lifts off with physical comedy as Barney White strips to his pants, dancing unselfconsciously, alone-in-his-bedroom, to a funky backing track. He’s putting on a suit, perhaps to go to work…or perhaps a funeral (this is a Wake, after all). He goes to leave the room via a door at the top of a ramp of wooden planking but it’s locked. This on a very basic level is the précis of the show – where the room he is locked into could = his life; his day; himself. A second character, played by Jeni Barnard got up to look exactly like Barney – mask and all, bizarrely – arrives through the locked door, from under the table, from round the corner – she’s Barney too, and he’s not very happy with himself. It’s an abstract, exploratory piece, walking a fine line between playful and grave – and looking more at dreams and metaphors for emotions than real narratives and memories of a real life lived. One minute you will know exactly what you think is going on, and the next you will be confounded.
An image of Barney beating Jeni (/himself) with a sock, she clinging upwards to the splintery wooden ramp, clawing at it with rollerskated feet, palpably turned hilarity to despair amongst the audience. Not long after, Barney is caught in the firing line of a machine gun which seems to signify all that life could throw at him.
Dance, clowning, theatre, and mime are subtly woven together – and during the first half of the show, the wheel is used sparsely, to signify a barrier between Barney and his surreal alter-ego/self. Towards the end of the show a longer duet wheel piece introduces a beautiful, smiling love interest. The skills are a joy to watch but the routine seems to slow the piece down. The image of the ‘girlfriend’ crumbling in Barney’s arms, a thin column of dust falling from the ceiling, could have had greater impact had momentum not been lost this late in the show.
The pair’s street-theatre rawness and immediacy, their good humour, bravery at play and some good direction sing through, and whilst there is still work to be done, there is much that works, very well. This is a complex and fascinating piece of theatre with generally understated and sophisticated use of physical theatre and circus skills. A shame the wheelwork isn’t more integrated – but it will get there.