Thomas Monckton blusters onto the stage in a flurry of grandeur, his wiry hair stood on end and his coat tails billowing behind him – the maestro has arrived! The audience eagerly awaits his unveiling of the grand piano that sits proudly centre stage, shrouded in a velvet cloth. Unfortunately for our protagonist the curtain falls on him before his recital can begin, and as he tries to escape from backstage we quickly discover Monckton is in fact less Beethoven and more Bozo the Clown. Within moments, the premise of The Pianist has been established and we will spend the rest of the evening following our clown’s capers and mishaps, as he endeavours to deliver his concerto.
New Zealand native Monckton’s collaboration with Finnish company Circo Aereo and director Sanna Silvennoinen is a triumph of classic circus skills performed with contemporary style. The simplicity of the premise is key to The Pianist’s success: it serves a springboard for Monckton’s imagination whilst giving the audience a means to understand his motivation, even when his actions become wildly eccentric. Monckton adeptly uses a variety of comedy tricks, from simple visual gags such as a piano stool that almost dwarfs the piano, to farcical circus antics like juggling his sheet music, to downright absurd stunts as he swings from a chandelier all because his foot got caught in it! And through his use of time-honoured repetition, the smallest jokes blossom into fond favourites that inspire rounds of laughter and applause.
It is evident that Monckton is more than a proficient performer in many areas and I’d bet his elastic facial expressions alone could entertain a small crowd, especially the younger ones who giggle at each gruesome creation. His slapstick manner evinces great underlying strength, agility and athleticism, put to use when his buffoonery calls for a well-executed handstand or tumble. Furthermore, his barmy behaviour is complemented and enhanced by the presence of his partner: this show may be listed as a solo piece, but it’s more like a duet – a double act delivered by Monckton and the grand piano. You see, it is often the piano that causes disruption to Monckton’s actions, but in a manner that sets up a far more entertaining outcome and punch line – the piano is his straight man, the Wise to Monckton’s Morecambe. There is something very classic about their relationship, even if it is a man and a musical instrument.
It is often said that we Brits love an underdog and perhaps that is why the audience gets so quickly on our clown’s side. You can feel the collective will growing as the show drives towards its conclusion. Yes we laugh at his failures, but we applaud louder at his successes. The finale of The Pianist is suitably bizarre yet tremendously satisfying, and Monckton rounds off the evening with his own fine balance of elegance and silliness.
The Pianist is playing at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre as part of the London International Mime Festival until 18 January. For more information see the Southbank Centre website.