The Ridiculus and the Sublime: reviewed for Remote Goat on 12/3/11
Baby Boomers and The Confetti Maker are a double-bill of plays directed by John Wright, a widely respected dramatist in the areas of physical and mask-theatre. If you have been following British theatre in the last 30 years, you will certainly have seen a play which has his mark upon it; not only has he founded theatre companies himself (notably Trestle Theatre and Told By An Idiot), but the students he trained at Middlesex University have carried his influence far and wide, making a Wright Bible of physical theatre tropes part of what we now understand physical theatre to be.
Baby Boomers is the first mask show Wright has directed for ten years. Two actors play an elderly woman and her husband in the present, and their younger versions in their early life together with the first flush of romance and subsequent loss and grief. They wear full-face masks and perform to a soundtrack of 1950’s songs. The most novel element of the piece is the use of balloons, representing everything from trees to hats to animals.
There is very little here that shows the gob-smacking brilliance of Wright’s best work. The actors perform imprecisely, moving casually in a way that shows disregard for the power of the masks. The story is ho-hum stereotypical, and there are many times when it is unclear what is going on. A (good) law of theatre is broken, in that the props become more important than the characters and the story, and we have to watch the actors fiddling with balloons in a way that destroys any potential magic. It is a sugary little piece, fuzzy and simplistic, with only a couple of moments of real charm.
By contrast, The Confetti Maker is an unadulterated joy. It begins with a witty bit of convention-shattering, where the actor playing the eponymous character (Frank Wurzinger) talks to his technician about problems with the script, then launches into the confetti maker’s world on the factory floor, showing how he makes his little scraps of paper, his quality-control routine, and what he eats on his meal-break (an unspeakably funny and gross piece of snack-eating). Wurzinger is in clown persona, naive, wide-eyed and increasingly crazed, and is physically dextrous in marvellously surprising ways. Unlike in the first play, the props all seem integral to the piece and are used with grace and flair. Within a minute of watching Wurzinger, you know you are in the safe hands of a consummate performer, though his character is so vulnerable and edgy, you cannot be sure what will happen next. As chaos reigns, the confetti-maker recites ‘To be or not to be…’; it is a mark of how much we care about him that the play can get away with that. I laughed long and hard, and felt moved to my core: this is the way that physical theatre can penetrate so well, using a clown to illuminate the human condition and show our universal concerns. I could have watched three times as much of Frank Wurzinger and still been begging for more.