Father (Vader)

Franck Chartier and Gabriela Carrizo
Peeping Tom, London International Mime Festival
Barbican Theatre
to

Peeping Tom is back with the next chapter of a family saga that makes the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch in a bonkers, brutal, moving take on the experience of old age set in such a depressing institution, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

Last year, this Belgian physical theatre company presented Mother (Moeder) to clamorous acclaim and now, equally quirky, Father (Vader) throws open the swing doors (a permanent feature throughout) into psychotic terrain: the dining area of a nursing home and the stuff of nightmares, where the old and ailing are nothing more than an irritant to the young and able.

Action opens onto several grey-coated cleaners sweeping the red-carpeted floors of the dining area of the home. Coats are shed to reveal the residents. Brooms are a theme throughout. There’s even a giant broom that bends its way over into the auditorium circus-like, swinging ominously.

The stage is dressed in the style of an NHS inspired waiting room: strip lighting, putrid green high walls set off by stained red carpet. There’s a generator that drones a monotone, only interrupted by violins plucking discordantly to build off-kilter ambience in clever sound mixing from Yannick Willox.

Once the residents settle in, they are either propped up like puppets at dining tables with plastic jugs and chicken soup for dinner or manoeuvred around in wheelchairs like extras from a Halloween movie. The scene is bleak and the residents fear their carers, flinching when the commissar—head of the nursing home—strides past.

Leo, the central father character, is the “the richest man in Belgium,” we are told by his son, yet here he is, wheelchair bound, shrivelled and shirtless, castigated for not being ready in time for his son’s weekly visit to the park. “Daddy, you’re not listening to me.” Sound familiar?

The intergenerational rubbing up the wrong way in a clash of culture, time and miscommunicated rhythm is written into the very heart of this piece. Here, the old have too much time and the young don’ t have enough to give. Patience wears thin and, as son patronises father, tables are turned: parent becomes child, the carer, cared for and the elderly dependant as are babies and children.

Then there is the movement. Are the performers human? Some of the binding contortionist shapes created by the dancers are totally remarkable, more familiar in a circus show setting. One minute, a young woman (Maria Carolina Viera) in tight-fitting cocktail dress sings a Portuguese medley; the next, she folds like a crumpled piece of paper into a pensioner with stooped back, no longer able to walk.

Much of the choreography happens as a side to the main action. A girl swings her long hair in frenzied circles, or a dancer writhes around the floor twisting, binding and cleaning invisible spots off the red carpet. While movement feeds into the overall chaotic imagery, on occasion it seems superfluous to the pace of the drama.

In Father, disturbing narratives unravels thick and fast. Heads of actors appear in a soup tureens, elderly inmates are stripped, humiliated and washed down, mosquitos bite and draw blood and care staff use brooms for sexual pleasure. Layer upon layer of chaos builds a visual overload of weirdly strange and unsettling imagery.

If the point of this show is to shed light on the fragility of the human form and how rapidly we age, then the formula works, unsparingly so, as hallucinatory scenes tumble out in surreal Technicolor.

Watching Peeping Tom in full throttle is like waking from a nightmare in a semi-conscious state, horrified, yet fascinated to return back to sleep to discover what happens. In Father, though, it’s probably better not to find out.

Rachel Nouchi