In a dingy rehearsal room, we meet an older man (Wim Opbrouck) who is obviously well past his best. He picks up two cymbals and with intensity bordering on meditation, plays around with a cheap CD player until he can rehearse his moment of glory. As the cymbals finally crash, others arrive to set out chairs and music stands for band practice.

Frank Van Laecke  and Alain Platel (co-directors) invite us to look through the old man’s eyes, to see the band as a microcosm of human life. We learn that he is dying of mouth cancer, so can no longer play the trombone. He is making do with cymbals because making music is the most important thing: the only way of avoiding despair. The four actors and seven musicians of Ballets c de la B in this show are joined in each venue by a local “real” band: at Sadlers Wells this was “The Heroes Band” who give concerts for charity.

We are taken on a strange journey. The man moves arthritically around the stage between and around the other characters and the band members. He and the other actors talk to the audience in interwoven English, French, Spanish, Italian and Flemish, repeating some phrases in more than one language and using mime or action to make sure we have understood. As well as speech, they rely on movement and performance devices. Two middle-aged women climb out of their clothes to reveal shiny gold “drum majorette” uniforms underneath. People appear in windows at the back of the set, sometimes appearing distorted or stretched. The band marches in stylised, halting steps, weaving across the stage. There is an extended interlude where one couple pushes the “erotic” symbolism of a trombone much further than is wise, while another couple spurts fountains of water all over each other and the stage. At one point, the man interviews band members, asking them what they do in the daytime and thanking them for making music. There are knowing allusions to modern choreography and theatre. 

Through all this, a bewildering stream of feelings, ideas, clichés and quotations are broadcast to the audience. Events are punctuated by a sound recording (in German with a  translation projected onto the set) of a conductor trying to tell an orchestra exactly how Mahler must be played. Live music weaves throughout, apparently effortless but of high quality. Nothing is ever explained, there is little coherence and some confusion, but we have some surprisingly deep glimpses of the main characters: the man’s desolation at his illness and his clinging to life through music; one of the women finally telling him how much she loves him and how hard it is for her to say it; they all let off steam and get drunk on music. 

There are moments of intense beauty that I will remember for a long time. A sequence where the musicians sing in quiet harmony as a counterpoint to the man’s loneliness is exquisite. The “rehearsal” sections where the seven core musicians play Mahler are ravishing and I adored the operatic sequence as well as the large scale music pieces. The unlikely dance duet between the man and a younger colleague (Hendrik Lebon) was simply wonderful, with breathtakingly original choreography that fully used the extreme physical contrast between the two. Performances were committed and skilled. Wim Opbrouck as the man went from monstrous to vulnerable and everything in between — a tour de force. He sings like an angel too. Chris Thys as his wife or partner was often moving and always credible. The core musicians produced warm, rich brass tone even when being asked to do extraordinary things at the same time and were always precise, tight and together. The Heroes Band performances were excellent and Steven Prengels’ musical direction and conductorship were awe-inspiring.

The piece needs to be edited. Some of the explorations were dead ends, some material was heavily over-used and some sequences (like the man’s misogynistic questioning of his partner’s sexual preferences) made me cringe. I sometimes found the insistence on absurdity or cleverness for its own sake, and the use of multiple languages, to be tedious. It came across as self-indulgent and self-important, and those moments as missed opportunities, so there were times when it felt more like an avant-garde workshop than an polishes attempt to engage an audience.

Even so, I am glad I saw it. I was surprised and delighted by so many original and unexpected ideas and (echoing Pina Bausch) Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke “found the beauty”. This will stick in the mind.