What’s not to like? You’ve got Ramesh Meyyappan, the beguiling physical theatre performer who, in shows such as Off-Kilter, has displayed a winning combination of charm and precision. You’ve got Emmanuelle Laborit, actor and director of the International Visual theatre in Paris. And you’ve got the two of them coming together in a Brexit-defying cross-border collaboration.
Throw in pianist Ross Whyte and director Andy Arnold, who is frequently at his imaginative best in devised productions of this nature, and the potential is there for a wordless show that takes inspiration from classic French cinema of the 1940s – in particular, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis.
What they are angling for is that blend of bittersweet comedy and sadness that characterises postwar film from France. Once their changing room morphs into a stage, Meyyappan and Laborit run through a series of sketches involving a floppy-hatted pierrot, a fortune teller and a pickpocket, tied with a coy romance.
There are moments of visual transformation, such as when Meyyappan’s fluttering butterfly hand alights on the hand of Laborit, playing a statuesque figure of Marianne, the embodiment of the French republic, and the convulsions ripple through her once solid body. Also impressive is the way one of them will single-handedly recount a sequence of events that the two have just played out, in a lighthearted display of physical finesse.
But there is too little of this kind of detail in La Performance, partly because their relationship is hazily defined. Meyyappan strides on doing an extended warmup, his body clearly his temple, before Laborit makes a late entrance, hair down, fag in mouth (bien sûr!), taking a swig of vodka. We expect a culture-clash comedy or a battle for status, but instead spend ages watching them put on their stage makeup, the tension dissipated.
Having stepped into the footlights, they never quite establish the nature of their double act, making it hard to fathom the roots of their squabbles or their romance. It leaves us with too little sense of purpose and of what drew them to the cinematic imagery in the first place.