★★★★★ [Five Stars]
The Krumple's inaugural offering in London is sweet, touching and very funny. Here's hoping it won't be the last. Go to Sleep, Goddamnit! is their first show and it roars onto the stage without speaking a single word. At the Camden People's Theatre.
Founded by graduates of École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, The Krumple is a physical theatre company with an international bent. The Lecoq school focuses on improvisation and bodily movement in performance with special emphasis on techniques of clown, mime, mask, and acrobatics. When I spotted that the Krumple's founding members Jo Even Bjørke, Jon Levin, Oda Kirkebø Nyfløtt and Vincent Vernerie were Lecoq graduates I knew this show would be imbued with its particular whimsical aesthetic. And I was right: within two minutes of the show opening I was laughing helplessly.
The show encompasses a large emotional sweep and is funny, uplifting and moving in turns. In a church we find an elderly priest, shuffling with noisy aged steps around the altar as he prepares for Sunday service, impatient at the death by a thousand cuts of tiny things going wrong: the burglar alarm keeps going off, the keys don't fit the dresser, he knocks a stack of things over. But there are still joys in his line of work – he gets caught in a gleeful moment of disarray playing with the censer, swinging it wildly around the little church. The organist arrives and is reprimanded for playing jazz. A character I am going to dub the First Church Lady arrives, eager to hand out hymnals to church attendees. But none come. None have been in quite some time.
The show is played out in full masks. Masks are often thought of as things behind which to hide, but performing in a mask can actually feel much more raw, much more revealing, than performing without one. It forces the actor to be extra cognisant of and expressive with the rest of the body. A truly skilled performer is able to make a fixed mask look as though it is changing expression. The Krumple are superb masked performers, transfixing in their ability to bring their characters to life.
The Church Ladies arrive to clean and dust and mop. First Church Lady, who we met earlier, scrubs the floor. Second Church Lady irons. Third Church Lady dusts. First Church Lady knocks over her bucket, Second Church Lady notes this failure in her little red book. Third Church Lady accidentally dusts a religious icon right off the wall, trying to pass this off as deliberate so it won't be noted in the book. She takes down the crucifix, sets it on the bench. First Church Lady sits on it and breaks it (horror!) The burglar alarm goes off, mayhem ensues. The priest arrives: what's all this? They show him the broken crucifix. He shakes the broken bits in disbelief. How can the church have a broken crucifix? The Church Ladies hang it back up again anyway. Their work here is done.
At its heart this is a show about confronting a gradual but increasingly pressing existential crisis: what do we do when we find that the things which make us ourselves begin to break down? To spin out of our control? What do we do when we begin to lose relevance?
Bedtime. The priest can't get comfortable. He works himself into a hilarious frenzy of distressed motion. Turns on some music. But it's actually something else – a sleep meditation CD! The voice asks what you've done today, (unhappy looks from priest) the day before that (more unhappy looks), the weeks and months before that (his life's been wasted! My God!)...
The sleep meditation cajoles the priest for his pathetic wasted life, and in anguish he packs to run away, taking his pillow. But he's caught by Second Chairlady who insistently returns him to his bed. Then, a dream: The Krumple introduces a simple, elegant, evocative dog puppet, the priest's memory of his childhood dog also prompted by the sleep meditation CD. Beautifully executed and emotionally resonant, this is a truly touching moment.
My favourite scene of all is one of First Church Lady reading. Reading Genesis, it appears: a small ark is put on the altar. She pulls small plastic animals from behind the altar, lining them up two by two, ready to go on the ark. But wait... What about this giant plastic dinosaur? She flicks through the book. Pulls out a second dinosaur. The other animals board the ark. One more time through the book. Not there. She pulls out a pen and writes them in with a little nod of satisfaction. The dinosaurs go on the ark.
The performance culminates in a crisis involving the broken crucifix and all of the many little items that have made the priest's life a misery all of these many years: just when it looks like the situation is about to become a true cataclysm, the church caretaker arrives and with gentle reverence puts things to rights. He rescues the crucifix from impending doom, puts the pieces back together and covers them with his handkerchief like a blanket, tucking it in. First Church Lady is there too, and the organist, all becoming transfixed by the little repaired figure.
As the lights go down the masked figures all look up at us in awe. A state of grace? Or just a dream? Either way, Go to Sleep, Goddamnit! is a very enjoyable journey.