Review: 300 el x 50 el x 30 el (Barbican Centre)

FC Bergman’s show makes its UK premiere as part of the London International Mime Festival

Another week, another hamlet – only this one’s of the village variety. There is, however, something very rotten beneath its still and sleepy surface – and I don’t just mean the dead sheep dredged from the local pond. Belgian collective FC Bergman’s surreal portrait of small-town life shows us the carrion carrying on behind closed doors. If the place looks picture-postcard pretty, the people that live there are anything but.

Onstage, six little wooden shacks sit in a circle surrounded by fir trees. Autumn leaves litter the ground between them and a solitary angler perches at the pond, roll-up on the go, waiting for a bite that never comes. All is quiet, all is calm. Birds chirrup and leaves rustle. It’s an image of rustic idyll: Mitteleuropa in all its natural glory.

Indoors, however, it’s a grim tale and a half. As a camera pans around the outside of the stage, going round the houses on a dolly track, it gives us a glimpse inside those six wooden shacks and in private, the townsfolk are pretty grotesque.

There’s the family of four watching their mother feast alone, and a clot of beer-swilling men chucking darts. A mother insistently teaches her daughter piano as, across town, a teenage boy blows a model village up with bangers. Next door: a couple – her on the bog, him fondling his limp dick on the telephone. Outside, meanwhile, the fisherman fishes.

With each camera lap, these six stories move on a notch – the effect somewhere between stop-motion and a zoetrope – and, slowly, spiral off into surrealism. Mum munches through the table and the boozers turn to William Tell tricks, before respawning as seagulls. The sexless couple birth conches to revive their marriage. Occasionally, some momentous event – the dredging of that dead sheep, for example – pulls them all out into public.

They’re each gorgeous, strange little stories – not least the burgeoning 'verboten' romance between the town’s two teenagers, who, stuck in this small town, turn their world upside down in an attempt to elope – and though they might seem plain surreal, the various villagers are all acutely observed. With each rotation, they become more familiar and, as they do, their lives fall into focus. You start to get a sense of why each is so stagnant; the pains and problems that keep them in place. The cruelty that kicks in as a result. What, you wonder, is going on in that sad fisherman’s head?

With a dark, disconcerting humour – not a million miles from an art-house League of Gentleman300 el x 50 el x 30 el peels back the surface of rural life to both sympathise with and sneer at those that live there. It keys into the harsh headspace of isolation and the conundrum of a slow, encroaching death versus the inward-focused small-mindedness that pins people in place. Calm as it seems, this is quietly horrifying.

300 el x 50 el x 30 el runs at the Barbican Centre until 3 February.