When I was a kid, I loved the movie Drop Dead Fred. In it, Rick Myall plays Fred, the invisible friend of a little girl called Elizabeth who comes back when she has grown up and is divorcing her husband. Fred comes to save her when Elizabeth is in desperate need of some silliness and the saving of her inner child, and he succeeds. I loved that film because it is unspeakably silly, but I also loved it for its tenderness and humanity. There are few things I have come across that make me feel as I did watching Drop Dead Fred as a small child, but The Pianist, by Thomas Monckton and Circo Aereo, is one thing that filled me with the same joy.
An utterly mental mash up of mime, circus and physical comedy, The Pianist operates on a simple premise: a pianist wants to play the audience a song, and we wants to look very grand while he does so, but things just don’t work out the way he wants them to. He can’t get out from behind the curtain, the chandelier clearly has it out for him. The piano lid won’t open; his outfit is askew; the audience won’t stop throwing his sheet music at him, and an altercation with the lighting operator leaves him in the dark (and reminds us all to be nice to the techs, who are the true gods of the theatre).
Thomas Monckton is an excellent performer. His acrobatics and circus skills appear effortless, especially when they work in tandem with his hilarious character, who is part Mr Bean part Basil Fawlty. He’ll hang one-handed upside down from a light fitting and you’ll simply forget that it is an unusual (and difficult!) thing to do because Monckton’s superb timing will have you laughing at his facial expressions, rather than staring open-mouthed at the showy trick. Although a few jokes drag out too long and a couple of dance sequences could have been cut down, the show moves along at a cracking rate, and the audience is never bored.
Most of the comedy comes from the absurdity of the every day. Ever had to wrestle with a too-high office chair to get it to go down to the right level? The pianist has. Ever got caught on (or in) something, and had that moment where you realise you look utterly ridiculous? Or just had a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day? The pianist knows how you feel, and it is strangely comforting to watch all the going-wrongs of everyday life playing out as a break-neck slapstick routine performed by a master physical comedian.
Monckton handles his audience – especially the children, the best kind of heckler – with grace, humour and consistency. The audience offer themselves up to him in return, and we become part of the show. I don’t think I have been a part of a more inclusive and fun audience-performer relationship than the one fostered in The Pianist.
But it is the small and quieter moments in this show that really make it special. The Pianist moves seamlessly between fantasy and reality, and the ways in which Monckton engages our imagination and invite us to play with him is nothing short of wonderful. His knees turn into two people having a punching match; fingers and a spinning barstool play out the lives of two lovers – including marriage, children and death. These moments balance out the blatant hilarity and make for a richer show that is warm-hearted, magical and very human.
The Pianist is a sublimely silly sixty-minutes, and is one of the best “for-all-ages” show I have seen. Children will love it for the chance to wallow in the unashamed play that comes naturally to them, and adults will love it for making them feel like children again.