There are sequences of true brilliance in All Wear Bowlers, the lively work physical theatre that brings together many of avant-garde techniques of the 20th-century – indeed at one point makes reference to that very term. It is truly gripping to watch Trey Lyford “die” as his partner in silent-screen clowning, Geoff Sobelle, attempts to prevent yet another egg bursting from his mouth, only to become an eerily convincing ventriloquist’s dummy that then comes to life as a comically threatening automaton before morphing into Goya’s child-consuming Saturn.
It is also easy to marvel at the sheer physical virtuosity of Sobelle’s set-piece Laurel and Hardy-style “the ladder and the rope”, played without safety lines or the net of the film set multiple-take. It is set up when the pair of Twenties-style silent movie actors, whose opening scene offers shades of Godot, fall out of that screen onto the Barbican stage and then seek to dig their way out of the ceiling.
That’s typical of the many appearances of Sixties-style Absurdist theatre that they should choose this route — as with those Magritte-style eggs that just keep bursting out and popping up somewhere — sometimes as hard as rocks, sometimes real eggs. (This isn’t perhaps a show for the best coat.)
Although should you find yourself sitting in rows A or B you might want that, for beware, you might find yourself part of the show… one more element in this grab-bag of theatre technique.
There’s a lot to entertain – lots perhaps to surprise and delight those little acquainted with the references. (This would be an ideal show for a mid to late teen, to convince them there’s more to theatre than Shakespeare.) Alternatively, if you delight in the traditional game of “spot the reference”, then you’ll find your every competitive desire satisfied.
There are even moments when the show starts to explore old but still interesting themes about the nature of performance and audience, and the interchangeability of those two roles. But soon, it is on to the next trick – a bit like a performing dog. It is almost all beautifully done, although the “third man between us” scene — made up by the interwoven legs and arms of the two performers — really didn’t come off tonight.
I couldn’t help feeling this was a showcase rather than a show – the whole failed to add up even to the parts. Perhaps all that will stick with me is that short but stunning moment of Goya come to life. Maybe that little homage is worth the 75 minutes of the show – but it might have been a lot better at 60 minutes, or even 50.
All Wear Bowlers, part of the bite07 programme and presented in association with the London International Mime Festival, continues until January 28. (With online booking.)