Review: Marée Basse (Barbican, London International Mime Festival)

Two faded acrobats in a mid-life slump drunkenly carry out their evening routine

The Drunken Bakers have got competition. Each week, Viz Magazine‘s forlorn bread-makers start baking only to burn themselves out with booze. Clown duo Benjamin De Matteïs and Mickaël Le Guen could be their long-lost French cousins. Call them The Sozzled Acrobats.

'Marée basse' translates as low tide, but its meaning is more figurative than that. If low tide marks the moment when the moon’s pull is at its weakest, it’s also the point, each day, when life is at its heaviest. For these two sighing sad sacks, a circus double team that’s swapped the big top for the bottle, it is an entire way of life. They are in the slumpiest of mid-life slumps.

If they’ve a motto in life it might be this: Make Do, Don’t Mend. Or else simply: CBA – Can’t Be Arsed. Their wooden shack is standing, but only just. Everything’s slapdash and askew. Jaunty wooden shelves are strung together at an angle and the electricity meter needs shorting to get the lights on. Nothing’s finished and nothing gets fixed. Half-empty wine bottles are dotted around on every surface. Apparently, even polishing off the last glass takes too much effort.

We watch their regular evening routine: a drawn-out attempt to make the meagrest of meals – and, my goodness, they don’t half make a meal of it. Rather than doing things simply and speedily, they seek to exert as little energy as is humanly possible. Instead of pulling up a chair to reach a high shelf, they’ll open the oven door to gain an extra inch. Rather than pass the bottle, they’ll tilt the table. Inevitably, the approach backfires every time. Everything becomes doubly difficult.

Theirs are the most laborious labour-saving devices possible. Elaborate pulley systems save them three paces and they swing switchblades into the floorboards so as not to bend down. They use machetes where penknives would do and get distracted, always, half-way through. It all hits that clowning sweet-spot bang on: hapless, frustrated and ingeniously inventive; two poor sods muddling by as best they can. As with all the best clowning, Marée Basse is deeply profound. Life has weighed down on them and, in turning to the bottle to lighten the load, they only make things harder and heavier.

It’s immaculately skilful, too. Le Guen and De Matteïs make a near-perfect pairing: Laurel and Hardy-shaped and unbelievably in sync. Le Guen is a scrawny wastrel with a permanent squint; De Matteïs, a big, bald, beardy bear whose only purple patch is the mellowing red wine stain on top of his tummy. Both balance their slobbishness with just the right dash of fastidiousness, and when they need to, they move with impressive alacrity. Complex tabletop juggling routines unfold, strongman acrobats dissolve into hard-hitting slapstick and the knives give the whole thing a constant edge of danger – not least when they start flying around with rising frustration. Jeopardy, of course, only ups the hilarity, and it’s rare to see all the heaviness of human life expressed with such impeccable lightness. Delightful.

Marée Basse runs at the Barbican Centre until 21 January as part of the London International Mime Festival.

Click here for our top ten shows to see at the Mime Festival