International Mime Festival
It’s Bill’s 44th birthday and he’s ready to party. He’s made the punch, got the hats and the music’s on. But where are the guests? Left to his own devices the birthday boy draws on his own imagination to make the evening fun, in a somewhat surreal tragicomedy that is expertly executed, enormously funny and at times delightfully unsettling.
Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck have created a beautifully rounded personality in Bill – although in fact he’s only a half-body puppet, manipulated by these two skilful puppeteers. He might just be an ordinary guy, but on his special day he wants to live it up a bit. They do a superb job of drawing his character as he gets the party going, bopping along to lounge music and mixing drinks. He’s wonderfully likeable, with his wobbly stomach and Tom Selleck moustache.
The puppetry is exceptional, at times a dance as the two performers extend legs and arms – prosthetics to Bill’s object body. Each almost telepathically knows what the other might do, to the point that Bill can toss a bottle in the air with one of their hands and catch it with the hand of the other. Tiny detailed finger movement and choreographed rhythm bring him expertly to life.
A further talented puppeteer Jon Riddleberger sneaks in to help extend Bill’s story to the outside world via TV, as a pizza delivery boy, and later manipulating a crowd of hilarious but naughty balloon partygoers. Again, the characterisation employed is meticulous; a tiny Bill moves with rhythm and style exactly complementary to the larger puppet, reproducing him with skill.
Having to believe puppets are real is a challenge in itself, but the show takes reality and fantasy and disrupts them even further, mixing in a touch of surreal hallucination to great humorous effect. We’re moved brilliantly between planes of reality; from Bill in his living room normality and on to his playful, imaginary world of vegetable and balloon friends. The clever set flexes to immerse the audience deeper into Bill’s mind as, sitting back with a spliff, his world literally relaxes with him.
Eamon Fogarty’s wonderful wandering soundtrack takes us seamlessly through these multiple states, from easy lounge music to moments of heavy metal thrash at a moment of surprisingly shocking murder when a balloon is popped. In a similar way, M. Jordan Wiggins’ precision lighting design shifts us cleanly from reality to bizarre imagination decisively but without effort.
The mechanics of the show are often impressive and unexpected. A parade of balloons marked with Sharpie-drawn faces floats in in a perfect line, but then somehow turns and progresses across the stage. An exploding TV set discloses Bill in miniature puppet form, so we focus intimately on his life story, his growth through childhood and later time wasted behind a desk when he should have been dancing. Objects within the storyline are seen to carry memory and nostalgia, marking time passed to this disappointing day. This helps us understand and empathise with Bill and so we are moved to join in and support him at the end of the show.
James and Manjuck have realised a wonderful achievement here, using objects and fantasy to give intense clarity to the very real emotional needs of the human condition. Gorgeously playful, at times poignant, wise and silly, Bill brings it all to the party in a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Written and devised by: Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck
Music composed by: Eamon Fogarty
Lighting design by: M. Jordan Wiggins
Sound design by: Andy Manjuck
Bill’s 44th plays at Barbican Centre as part of London Mime Festival until 4 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.