It’s a Thursday night and there’s an air of eager anticipation amongst the audience that have gathered together in the Basement for La Vie Dans Une Marionette. Our usher, Jarod Rawiri, dressed meticulously in monochrome colours and replete with white kid gloves, a dab pencil moustache and of course white face paint, is the perfect effervescent host as he marshals the punters to their seats.
It’s a night of intimacy and after a few rounds of audience participation, where even the most unwilling have been cajoled into various degrees of socialisation, the story begins.
It’s a simple and compelling tale. A heartbroken and reclusive pianist (Tama Jarman) is saved by his life-sized marionette (Justin Haiu) who is brought to life by music. A largely non-verbal mise-en-scene follows that traces a saga of friendship and freedom, laughter and love that is poignant as it is powerful.
The set and costume design, simply attributed to the collective White Face Crew, is exactly what we would expect from a lonely muso living alone with little to keep him company aside from his own eccentricities. Under Paul Nicoll’s lighting design the tired piano, faded linen and other bare essentials of the bachelor pad create a world where time has simply decided to stop.
Waving his feather duster with dramatic precision it’s unlikely that anything can penetrate our pianist’s stuffed-shirt pomposity. Until of course, the arrival of a large box carrying the quintessential puppet. Baggy pants that are held up breeches, the iconic black and white striped jumper, an olive beret and a wide-eyed innocence complete this dangly newcomer as he moves in perfect rhythm to his owner’s experimentation.
If Jarman’s performance is riveting because of his exacting gestures and sense of heightened exaggeration then Haiu must be applauded for the ease of physical dexterity and uninterrupted lightness that be brings to every moment. Together they’re an ideal couple against the sculpted soundscape developed by Yann Tiersen and Tama Waipara. The score is one of the highlights of this work, carefully melding and creating tones that add volumes to the movement.
There are more than a few nods to the silent film era and it’s into this world that Rawiri continues to have a magnetic hold over the audience. He is our omnipresent narrator, disrupting the traditional mime expectations, yelling out cues for the lighting operator and generally adding a dose of saltiness to this nostalgic world.
The ending, however, is just a tad too rushed. There are so many exquisite moments that are built up during the majority of the show that it seems a pity to switch into a different gear – but it is a minor quibble. The strength of the performers and their ability to cradle the story and the space is generous and gentle.
This is visual theatre at its best: rich, fertile and engaging. It’s also pantomime blanche (when the performers wear white paint on their faces) and offers an excellent feast of familiar stock characters, tropes, narratives all neatly presented with more than a few audacious twists.
Broader than modern mime and certainly stretching the boundaries of classical pantomime, the White Face Crew presents an ideal inter-generational work that will appeal to all ages. Take the kids and the grandparents – there will be laughter all around.