Returning to the London Mime Festival after the outstanding success of Horror (2015), Jakop Ahlbom makes the logical connection between mime and silent movies in a show – predating Horror in the Ahlbom repertoire – inspired by his admiration for Buster Keaton; a great vaudevillian who became – almost by accident – one of the legendary stars of Hollywood’s golden era before the invasion of “the talkies” sent him into a downward spiral of alcoholism. 

© Stephan van Hesteren
© Stephan van Hesteren

Keaton was a comedian who never told a joke; a stoical, stony-faced everyman who made humour from extraordinary physical stunts (all of which he performed himself) and the ordinary seriousness with which he responded to each of the many calamities that fate propelled his way. Ahlbom’s trademark blend of illusion and acrobatics creates a visual, theatrical experience that bears many similarities to the cinematic magic of his long-departed hero.

The Peacock stage was greatly foreshortened by a set that recreates – with astonishing precision – the kitchen in Keaton’s 1920 film, The Scarecrow, a seemingly ordinary dining room but one which has been designed (by Ahlbom and Douwe Hibma) to contain a plethora of surprises that mimic the film. Ahlbom’s title, Lebensraum, by the way, is a twentieth century German word, meaning ‘the territory which a group, state or nation believes is needed for its natural development’, thereafter appropriated to describe Hitler’s aggressive territorial expansion.    

Ahlbom and his sidekick, Reinier Schimmel, appear to take The Scarecrow roles of Keaton and Joe Roberts. Both have alabaster white faces although Schimmel is no physical match for the portly Roberts, who made the film shortly before his death; both of today’s performers being dressed as Keaton in the film. The opening sequence of Lebensraum is taken faithfully from the film – although thereafter, the similarities end – as the two men, clearly inventors, eat breakfast in a dining environment in which every menial task is assisted by ropes, pulleys, weights and model trains. Utensils, food, condiments and bottles are all summoned to the table by a simple pull on a rope; although inevitably one sauce bottle fails to make it back into its holder before the latter ascends to the ceiling. This comic effect greatly offends the Ahlbom Keaton who is clearly an obsessive compulsive when it comes to tidiness and the Schimmel Keaton has his food removed before having a chance to eat it!

© Sanne Pepper
© Sanne Pepper
The Dutch rock band Alamo Race Track provides the score, a mix of country, hard and soft rock, which is played live onstage by a pair of musicians, Leonard Lucieer (of Alamo Race Track) and Empee Holwerda. They wear suits in the exact same quirky “green/black vertical lines and crosses” pattern and colourway as the kitchen wallpaper, blending in with their surroundings so that their heads look like gruesome trophies displayed on the wall of a head-hunter’s hut. At times the musicians seem to be a distraction to the physical theatre, whilst they also appeared a part of it. Much of the modern music was at odds with the attempt to convey the Keaton imagery and, for me, it was the least effective element of an excellent production.    

The appearance of a plastic mannequin leg and hand presages the inventors’ attempts to create a robot maid and when she appears, the stiff effect of a dressmakers’ dummy is superbly maintained by Silke Hundertmark (Ahlbom’s partner and long-term collaborator) in an immersive, well-controlled human essay on puppetry. The apparent lightness and rigidity of the doll, gradually learning how to manipulate both her own limbs and her two male creators, was achieved through great skill and dexterity, these physical attributes enveloped in the mischievious humour that Hundertmark brought to her performance.

© Sanne Pepper
© Sanne Pepper
The Keaton kitchen set – enhanced by a poster of the silent star himself (a full-page portrait of Charlie Chaplin adorned the back page of a newspaper, read by Schimmel) – was full of secret exits and entrances: through the walls, out of a kitchen storage locker and even, in the show’s most memorable illusion – a genuine breathtaking moment – through a performer’s body!  

In a performance requiring pinpoint timing and acrobatic skill, Ahlbom and Schimmel met every cue, creating the magical, physical, surreal slapstick humour of Keaton along the way. Keaton’s best-known stunt came in his last film for United Artists, Steamboat Bill, made eight years’ after The Scarecrow, when a building front fell on top of the star who was saved by the geometrical precision of a window opening passing over his erect body. This exact combination of Keaton’s courage in physical stunts, his stunning illusions and dark, deadpan humour marks Ahlbom and Co. with a similar imprint of genius; albeit transposed for live theatrical performances.