Theatre reviews: La Performance | Undertow Overflow

In gorgeous play-within-a-play La Performance, off-stage tensions bleed into a show about a Paris-set love story, writes Joyce McMillan
Emmanuelle Laborit and Ramesh Meyyappan in La Performance PIC: Mihaela BodlovicEmmanuelle Laborit and Ramesh Meyyappan in La Performance PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Emmanuelle Laborit and Ramesh Meyyappan in La Performance PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

La Performance, Tron, Glasgow ****

Undertow Overflow, Summerhall, Edinburgh ****

Since he moved to Scotland 16 years ago, the Glasgow-based theatre maker and performer Ramesh Meyyappan has won international recognition for his work in raising the profile of deaf and d-deaf people in the arts, and for his own beautiful shows including Off Kilter and Snails And Ketchup.

His latest project though, is something special, in that it involves a collaboration with the wonderful French theatre artist Emmanuelle Laborit, who co-founded IVT (International Visual Theatre), France’s first theatre company dedicated to sign language; and the result is the gorgeous one-hour show La Performance, which premiered at the Tron this week in a production by artistic director Andy Arnold.

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La Performance is a play-within-a-play about two performers – known only as “Her” and “Him” – whom we meet backstage, preparing for their two-person show. Their styles could hardly be more different; his preparations include a vigorous warm-up routine and sips of water, hers involve a haze of cigarette smoke and the odd slug of vodka. Yet despite their disagreements – acted out in fierce sign language – there’s a hint of something between them; an attraction of opposites, maybe, and a touch of obsession, at least on his side. And when their show starts – a beguiling number set in what looks like a watercolour version of Paris, about a lovely young woman adored by a hapless Pierrot, and accompanied by Ross Whyte on Satie-influenced piano – it’s clear that the tensions between them have not quite been left in the dressing room.

It’s a simple scenario, beautifully delivered on the little Changing House stage by a team that also includes designer Jenny Booth, and lighting man Benny Goodman. Meyyappan moves and signs beautifully and poignantly throughout. And Laborit is simply a tremendous actress, whether bringing an edge of wonder and irony to the stereotyped role of a comedia dell’arte heroine; or simply leaning against a back-alley wall at the end of the evening, exhausted by “Him” and his intensity, and lighting up another cigarette.

Currently finishing a brief tour around Scotland, Ben Harrison and Amy Duncan’s Undertow Overflow also features a man and a woman on stage; but here, the atmosphere is one of almost liquid harmony and strength, as Harrison’s words and Duncan’s music carry each other into ever deeper realms of emotional self-exploration.

The driving force behind the show is Harrison’s sequence of poem-like short narratives, the first pieces he has performed himself since becoming artistic director of Grid Iron Theatre in 1996. They are short, penetrating, slightly self-mocking stories about a man a little like himself, not old but past life’s half-way mark, increasingly given to introspection, still capable of falling in love, but also ever more wary; and while some of his stories are deadly serious – as he remembers an incident of abuse from his childhood, or considers whether he will get his wish to die in Venice – others are amusing or surreal, not least his opening number about a man who literally falls into his lover’s big brown eyes, and ends up as a tiny figure perched on the edge of her iris.

Amy Duncan’s beautiful songs, meanwhile, twine around Harrison’s words like smoke, or twirls of water tinged with a slightly different colour, speaking of loss, acceptance, beauty and hope; and between them, they deliver a beautiful and intelligent hour of music theatre, not entirely happy, not entirely sad, and sometimes just plain absurd – a bit like the business of life itself.

La Performance is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 22 October. Undertow Overflow is at the Eastgate, Peebles, 14 October, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 15 October, and The Glad Cafe, Glasgow, 16 October.