trifle: why Durham should embrace its inner clown

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Last night, I was amongst the audience for Durham’s first clown show, Lion Theatre Company’s trifle, in which Qasim Salam laid waste to Empty Shop in fifty minutes of mime, surreal comedy and outrageous audience interaction. Is this the start of a trend for Durham, or are we just not quite ready for this level of weirdness?

Many of us may have left trifle with little idea of what we had just experienced, but Salam’s clown show could rudimentarily be described as a very physical kind of slapstick comedy; mime which on paper shouldn’t really be funny but somehow is. It’s sometimes difficult to grow accustomed to, and you do most likely need to be in a particular type of mind-set to enjoy it. Nevertheless, it was refreshingly different to other comedy acts in Durham such as the Revue and Shellshock!, which previously seemed to have the monopoly on oddness. Many of the routines in the one-man show look simple, such as an increasingly frenetic dance routine based on a man taking a cycle ride, but you wonder how many people could pull them off.

Clown shows, whilst not being part of mainstream theatre in Durham at least, are part of a tradition that includes both Charlie Chaplin and Sacha Baron Cohen. There’s even a French clown school called École Philippe Gaulier with alumni that include Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson, in which self-styled clown guru Gaulier attempts to encourage his students to discover their inner clown and become closer to their bodies via an incessant stream of biting put-downs. Clown routines like Salam’s destroying of multiple plastic knives in an attempt to cut an orange may on the surface look simpler to execute than cerebral sketch comedy or a well-executed stand-up routine, but clowning is a lot more difficult than you would expect.

Salam’s show would comfortably fit into the more experimental milieu of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the Festival exerted a clear influence on proceedings. I recognised the opening routine, in which Salam produced flowers from a bedsheet ghost costume and drank tea through the eyeholes, from the first sketch of comedy duo Beard’s The Grin of Love from last year’s Fringe. Salam shared Beard’s talent for bizarre facial expressions and making a repeated physical gag infectiously humorous, and trifle feels just as fresh as The Grin of Love did in Edinburgh. The Fringe as a whole has an atmosphere of craziness and experimentation which for better or for worse is not really present in Durham to the same extent, which is perhaps why we’ve not had any clown shows until now.

There are hints, however, that trifle may be the sign of things to come. Following an NSDF workshop from Frantic Assembly’s Simon Pittman, both Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin and Will Emery expressed a keen desire to see more physical theatre in Durham in Palatinate’s article covering the festival. LTC are already responding to this demand with Stephen Berkoff’s East planned for next term—quite a  different beast to trifle but still embracing a physicality which has so far been noticeably absent from Durham’s repertoire.

I don’t think Durham is ever going to be as crazy as Edinburgh, or that clown shows like Salam’s will become the norm for Durham comedy. We’re a lot more used to stand-up and sketch comedy, and clown shows and mime may be a little but too minimalistic for some people’s tastes and a step too far outside their comfort zone. There are also very few performance spaces that lend themselves to this kind of show. Empty Shop was perfect for trifle, but you can’t imagine Salam crowd-surfing over the audience’s laps in The Assembly Rooms.

Saying this, trifle quickly sold out and the piece closed to impassioned applause, so there is clearly a demand for more alternative theatre and audiences are willing to experiment with different kinds of show. Whether others will be as brave as Salam in trying to command an audience’s attention with cereals, fruit and a game of Guess Who however is another matter entirely. Beyond thoroughly entertaining an audience who didn’t really know what to expect, Salam has shown that clown comedy and mime are areas that are definitely worth exploring for Durham theatre.

Photograph: Dmitry Rozhkov

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