Peeping Tom in '32 rue Vandenbranden'.  Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

Marie Gyselbrecht and Seoljin Kim in ’32 rue Vandenbranden’.
Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

Barbican Theatre, London, UK; January 28, 2015

David Mead

It’s a car crash of styles and influences, and in some ways it’s a wonder it works at all. There’s spoken word and dance, contortion and classical singing, Bellini’s “Casta Diva” and Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. And don’t forget the pantomime humour and slapstick. And yet, “32 rue Vandenbranden” doesn’t just work, it’s a terrific evening of physical theatre at its very, very best.

Conceived and directed by company founders Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier, the production is typical of Peeping Tom’s work, for which the huis clos (behind closed doors) of family situations, the laying bare of hopes, fears and relationships, is a major source of creativity.

It’s all set in a snow-covered, mountain top landscape; a place of big skies and limitless horizons. In one sense it is beautiful, but it’s also bleak. It’s an incredibly scenic place, but equally one that yells isolation and loneliness.

Hun-Mok Jung.  Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

Hun-Mok Jung.
Photo © Herman Sorgeloos

It’s a place of desolation, where people live in rickety trailer homes, where tattered curtains billow in the whistling wind, doors slam, and where bags of trash blow across the ground. The sound of a crying baby brings a sense of comfort, but it’s only momentary as this turns out to be an unstable world; a place where dreams and nightmares, the real world and the absurd, fears and desires collide time and again. The boundaries between what happens in reality and what the cast (and sometimes the audience) believe happens becomes increasingly blurred. Was Marie really behind that trailer door or not? And if she was, how did she disappear? Imaginations run riot as their fears take over, and as the community’s dark side is revealed for all to see.

Early on, the cast play in the snow like children seeing it for the first time. But all that unbounded joy is soon forgotten as the dark side comes to the fore. The production lives up to the company’s name as the audience becomes a voyeur, peeking into this disconcerting world, peeking through the trailer windows on love, quarrels and much more.

The compelling commentary on life and its absurdities develops slowly and quite cinematically. All the performers have wonderful presence and their physicality is remarkable. Often the eye is drawn to a man or woman inside their home, standing or maybe slumped against the window. Those moments of stillness serve to ratchet up the tension as we see Jos’ desire for Carolina is increasingly overtaken by his need for domination, and Kim’s pursuit of Marie fail as he is eventually repelled.

You never know what is coming next. The action swings wildly between drama and tension as noir as it gets, and humour. The arrival of Kim and Jung is the cue for a clown-like acrobatic dance that includes much tumbling (or should that be stumbling) around the stage. Someone ‘skates’ across the icy ground and thuds into a trailer wall; Kim knocks on Marie’s door (the performers use their real names throughout) and his trousers fall down. Marie and Kim are held horizontally by the wind but suddenly thud to floor when it suddenly dies.And then there’s the sight of Jung in white vest and underpants, totally unabashed and ecstatically stroking his genitals; a scene that turns hilarious when he’s interrupted by three passing skiers on their way to the slopes, who far from being perturbed at the sight, stop and wave joyfully in greeting.

There are some impressive and innovative dance sequences. A duet between Vieira and Baker has her clasping her ankles throughout. At first she is carried like a rucksack, before being swung and manoeuvred around his body in a myriad of ways. Another remarkable sequence sees Kim and Jung dance in the snow with their legs held in the lotus position throughout.

Passing through it all, and sometimes hovering over it on a trailer roof like some guardian angel is impressive mezzo-soprano Eurudike De Beul, whose voice and songs drill deep into the heart of the people and the place.

A dream, a nightmare, or just a moment on a journey? Take your pick. “32 rue Vandenbranden” is at times difficult and dark, comic, and poetic and beautiful. It’s also totally gripping from start to finish. Don’t miss it!