The Generating Company

Like Frantic Assembly, whose Peepshow I saw at the Lyric last month, The Generating Company is a troupe of performers likely to get young audiences back into theatre buildings. Their work is a very specialised genre, Circus Performance, at which the French excel, as is attested by the international renown of Cirque du Soleil, who provided the very best inter-awful-acceptance-speech entertainment at the Oscar ceremonies this year that I've ever seen (and don't miss their Saltimbanco at the Royal Albert Hall in January). The Generating Company will attract young audiences because nowadays we live in a visual and physical culture in which the word-bound linear narrative of traditional mainstream theatre is failing to appeal to a new generation, and we need those young buttocks on seats badly rather than those spindly shanks that seem to be the mainstay of box-office receipts.

The visuals of film, and, in particular, the video clip, is a language which young people are adept at reading. Since the sexual liberation of the sixties, we are a society becoming increasingly aware of the body with a diversity of responses from teenage pregnancy, anorexia and the pump-your-muscles cult of the gym. The Generating Company's Storm vibrates from beginning to end with scintillating visuals, including a video screen, dynamic music and a positive view of the body at its most vigorous and expressive.

There are excellent schools for acrobatic training in Britain, and, happily, more and more inter-disciplinary artists are starting to train in these skills, such as the actor/dancer Jean-Paul Zaccarini, whose beautiful and funny show, Throat, will be reprised from the Edinburgh Festival for the Mime Festival in February. However, shows on the sheer scale of Storm are a new innovation in this country and it is a pity. Circus Performance incorporates verbal text with circus skills, technological innovation and music, blended together into sketches replete with characters, often in an overall, but loose, framework of narrative. It is a vehicle for tantalising sensual delight. And why should anyone bother to spend good money, go out on a wintry night to see a piece of drama with dialogue and situations that mirror our mundane existence, with characters developed as psychological realism, when you can turn on the box and get a fix of realist drama without leaving your couch, your beer can and your bumper bag of crisps behind?

Storm takes place over twenty-four hours embracing a host of characters, mostly comic, such as the postman, the weather girl for an on-line radio station Massive FM, her comic techie, the man whose dog has done a massive dump on the stage and I won't tell you how he disposes of it, but it is very funny the bug man, all of whom turn up intermittently on stage, on the video screen and even in the audience. (As a tip, don't sit in the front row if you are too embarrassed to be taken on stage to help out with the fun.) Traditional circus acrobatics are blended with roller-skating, skateboarding and dance (and I'm a sucker for break-dancing). All the performers are thoroughly accomplished on all levels, as comedians, dancers, singers, acrobats and physical performers. And the weather-girl's frustrated, and deliciously extended, outburst of physicalised hysterics deserved a round of applause I feel a reserved British audience was too reticent to deliver. Alternatively, perhaps the director could have incorporated a tiny pause in the action here for the audience to respond.

The light show is of major pop-concert quality, and the effective use of dry ice enhances the effects. In fact, it is the attention to minute detail that gives this show a richness that makes me proud to be a British theatre-maker. And every single skill has been worked in one way or another into a sketch or a narrative: even the performers who could balance on precariously arranged mountains of chairs did so in a sketch as (Italian?) cooks watched with laconic disapproval by a stylist mâitre de'.

The set, aluminium stellages, was used flexibly to facilitate scene changes and mood. At one point the two-tier front structure was wheeled forward to the very edge of the thrust stage and six performers hooked themselves up to wires and whirled over the audience to pumping music. And it was in the penultimate scene, what we would traditionally refer to as the denouement, that this was used to the fullest, when the storm itself breaks and was expressed through acrobatics of breathtaking excellence as a multitude of performers appeared swinging on wires, twirling, dancing in the air, and dropping over the audience in an exhibition of skill that was stunning and was combined with lighting and music that pulsed with life. The wow-factor came into force with a vengeance. The middle-aged woman next to me was yelling with enthusiasm and this in the Barbican Theatre!

I don't think that The Generation Company is quite is the league of Cirque du Soleil - yet! The French, with a tradition of mime and physical theatre that dates back to theatre practitioners of the 1930s with a distaste for realism that fuelled their innovative endeavours, such as Decroux, Copeau and Antonin Artaud, have twenty years advance on us and funding bodies willing to give major subsidies. Alternatively, there were aspects of this performance in which The Generation Company has the edge in creativity and that relates to our own British tradition of comedy. Besides, we don't want two Cirques du Soleil, we want a Cirque du Soleil and The Generation Company.

It took me hours to come down from the high of this performance. Even the miserable faces waiting for delayed trains on the London Underground couldn't staunch my flowing ecstasy. I do wish that funding in this country could be diverted from traditional realism, with its central ethos that 'new writing is the life blood of theatre', and putting gold paint onto plump cherubs adorning 19th century proscenium arches into allowing dynamic and visionary performers of this ilk - and it was a devised show - to develop their work. The Generation Group should be touring internationally to show the world that France hasn't cornered the market in Circus Performance.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher

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