Forget Me Not will be at the Southbank Centre until Sunday night.

Forget Me Not will be at the Southbank Centre until Sunday night.

Mime may not be an obvious genre that comes to mind to some when thinking of cabaret. They should think again: last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival gave its highest comedy awards to not one but two of cabaret’s silent sons in The Boy With Tape On His Face and Doctor Brown.

Mime artists challenge the audience to think beyond the limitations of the stage and use the lack of vocalised vocab to create a new language through which to process what they are seeing. Once again the London International Mime Festival has gathered a truly eclectic cabal of entertainers from the visually vibrant Vortex to loquacious cabaret veteran Mat Ricardo.

This weekend sees the Southbank Centre’s prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall given over to Forget Me Not (Ne M’Oublie Pas) by Compagnie Phillpe Genty. Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the Gallic origins of this troupe whose work goes back a number of decades. Indeed, Forget Me Not started out over twenty years before its a recent re-invention inspired by a group of Norwegian performers.

The new blood’s influence on this show is immense. The bookend chapters of this ninety-minutes-long-and-no-intervals-so-go-before-it-starts production are a crepuscular meditation on the long winter days with silhouetted puppets used to play out a bleak scene upon a distant hilltop. Much of Forget Me Not’s action takes place on what appears to be an ice lake with the performers occasionally moving about and even dancing on stunted skis and ski poles.

What warms up this Franco-Scando affair is the energy put out by the cast. The double-handful of twenty-somethings are easy on the eye but the pacy choreography adds a zing to some of the more leadenly-plotted scenes. There’s more than cheerleader chic going on here as the show’s youthful façade belies some typically clever Genty imagery.

There’s a vague nod to puppetry in the opening and closing sequences but it also plays a significant role throughout especially early doors. The high point of Forget Me Not sees the cast paired with a mannequin spookily similar to themselves in terms of clothes, height and body shape as well as hair colour, length and shape. The Japanese (who else?) coined the phrase ”uncanny valley” which describes the skincrawling effect of seeing a facsimile of a human being which could pass for the real thing. In Forget Me Not, these dolls are operated as lifesize bunraku puppets by their doubles in a series of movements which range from a slow-creeping tide of mock and real humanity crawling across the floor through to Busby Berkeley-like dance routines. Later scenes see the puppets thrown through the air offstage, snogged and bodily dismembered.

Audience interaction is at a minimum here but the fourth wall takes a battering at one point as a performer looks to the audience and ironically shouts one of the very few spoken lines “Won’t somebody say something?” With little in the way of speech, the music takes centre stage and is itself worthy of mention. Genty’s genius in creating a memorable visual landscape through the Scandinavian set design and the unnerving puppets is matched by René Aubry’s emotive soundscape crossing from operatic arias through to Arctic mood pieces and jaunty dance tunes.

Forget Me Not dances a fine line between sophistication and sophistry. The slapstick routines towards the end which see the cast skid around on water, roll around as snowballs and jape around like the last day of term seem out of place in what is at heart a deeply nuanced meditation on the human condition. The icy visuals are magnificent but, over the ninety minutes of the show, the snowblindness sets in, the pacing is all over the place and the lack of narrative often left us floundering to find meaning in the sillier scenes. For all its history, Forget Me Not will not be as memorable as its creators would like to think it is.

Forget Me Not continues tonight and tomorrow night at the Southbank Centre. 

Forget Me Not. Produced by Companie Phillipe Genty. Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX. 17 January 2014. £15.

Image credit: Pascal Francois