When it comes to making the perfect cup of tea, Etienne Manceau takes the biscuit. In VU, the deadpan Frenchman embarks on an obsessively precise, absurdly roundabout ritual in his bid for a brew that matches up to his standards. His is a tea ceremony inspired by Rube Goldberg.
From the moment he balances a sugar lump on the switch of his kettle, primed to dive into a waiting mug the split second it brings itself to the boil, you know you’re in the safest of hands. Perched on a dinky little foldable chair, knees by his nipples, Manceau peers down at his cute wooden coffee table through little round specs and adopts a research scientist’s meticulousness to each task in hand. He pats down his teabag like a fine fillet steak, before launching it into hot water via a foot-long blowpipe. VU already looks like a teatime treat.
As proceedings grow more and more convoluted – candles are lit using extendable matchsticks and nail clippers become miniature sugar cube catapults – Manceau wrings his comedy from applying an exacting approach to irrational processes. Like Mary Poppins’ handbag, his coffee table contains an infinity of instruments: garden scissors, metal grabbers, paper-cone fingers. Where you or I might add a dash of milk direct from the bottle, Manceau fashions himself two paper udders and squeezes them into a teeny metal pail. It takes him the maximum of fuss to make the minimum of effort and each labour-saving device entails a protracted set-up.
Out of that, VU reaches beyond simple absurdity to something existential. While Manceau brings a Gallic grump to a ritual we associate with Japanese calm, his finicky perfectionism starts to look obsessive compulsive. The slightest of slips – an unexpectedly upside-down matchbox – can tip the whole thing off and in no time at all, it’s Manceau who hits boiling point. With the same gliding calm, he lights a little banger, pops it in a drawer and allows it to detonate with a room-shaking boom. As the smoke rises and the tea settles, you realise Manceau’s balanced exterior masks a man wound tight.
If it tips him over the edge, into a wave of sardonic, self-destructive behaviour, VU darkens beyond all expectations. To say too much more would be to spoil its surprises, but by the time he’s sat next to a smoking toaster or taking a cleaver to his own hands, a cutesy clown show looks mighty tense. One could almost do with a nice cup of tea…
VU runs at Shoreditch Town Hall until 27 January.