Director: Jakop Ahlbom
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
One of the advantages of twenty-first-century living is the freedom to design your perfect life. Whether you want a 9-5 job and domestic harmony or flexible working and endless travel, increasingly people are discovering new ways to balance their various needs. For the more scientifically-minded this could even mean inventing something or someone entirely new to share it all with.
Jakop Ahlbom’s Lebensraum, showing at the Peacock Theatre as part of the 2018 London International Mime Festival, is the story of two scientists who have created their ideal home life, with an intricate and perfectly balanced system of ropes and pulleys that serves them breakfast and helps them to get dressed. But the one thing they’re missing is some female company, so between them they create their very own robot woman and chaos ensues.
Ahlbom’s farcical tribute to the comedic silent movie is proof that dialogue just gets in the way of a good story, and despite a fairly slow start in which the inventors tangle themselves in sewing machine cables, what follows is one impressively constructed and skilfully performed scene after enough. Openly paying tribute to the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with a touch of Frank Spencer, Lebensraum balances plenty of slapstick humour with an engaging tale of two lonely men looking for companionship.
Character development is the heart of its success, and the two distinctly drawn scientists -played by Ahlbom and Reinier Schimmel – make contrasting but convincing housemates whose long association with each other has resulted in an easy domestic routine and plenty of subtle antagonism. The completion of their doll-like robot woman (Silke Hundertmark) exacerbates the division between them with Schimmel’s character wanting a servant to clean and attend them, while Ahlbom’s more emotional boffin is looking for a pleasing companion.
Some of the show’s highlights include the men’s expertly timed breakfast in a structure Wallace and Gromit would be proud of, as well as the scene in which the robot-woman comes to life. With a soft piano soundtrack, Hundertmark slows gains a more human form, developing from a straight-legged stiffness to more fluid movements as she gets used to her limbs while exploring her new home.
In one of the best moments Schimmel and Hundertmark perform an intricate series of acrobatics as he tries to make his new doll stand or sit still. There’s considerable trust between the performers in a sequence involving carefully timed movements and plenty of gasp-inducing catches at the last possible moment, all created with a tongue-in-cheek humour that offers a series of lifts and throws that even the most competent Strictly contestant might baulk at.
There is a sadness that runs through the show, particularly in the loneliness of Ahlbom’s character, that has much to say about our need for love and relationships, but the focus on emotion is never too dominant, with a humorous twist often just a few seconds away, whether it’s Hundertmark’s robotic malfunctions that throws their once comfortable home into disarray or the building tension between the two men that results in a final choreographed clash.
Many of the slapstick moments will be overly familiar from other sources such as collapsing ladders, but they fit well into a show that uses the stage effectively. Douwe Hibma and Ahlbom’s set offers multiple hidden exits and entrances that keep the farce moving quickly with its many energetic sequences. By turns funny, sinister, peculiar and emotional, Lebensraum is a cautionary tale outlining the possible pitfalls of designing your own life but with a hint that maybe its worth a little chaos.
Runs until: 3 February 2018 | Image: Contributed