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Review: BILL'S 44TH, Barbican Theatre

Review: BILL'S 44TH, Barbican Theatre

A poignant tale of loneliness, introspection and a dancing carrot stick.

Review: BILL'S 44TH, Barbican Theatre Coming to the Barbican Centre as part of this year's London International Mime Festival, Bill's 44th is a poignant tale of loneliness, introspection and drunken hallucinations with nods to A Christmas Carol, Waiting For Godot and The Nutcracker. American puppeteers Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck bring the paunchy middle-aged birthday boy to life with James holding his torso and providing his right arm, Manjuck his head and left arm.

Things start well. We meet Bill in his sparse flat in which he lives by himself. While he awaits his guests, he puts out the crudites, pumps up the balloons and spikes the punch with enough booze to get a mountain gorilla drunk. Then he sits and waits. And waits. After a while, frustration turns to boredom and he ends up drawing smiley faces onto a carrot and the balloons as he liberally lubricates himself from the punch bowl. Bill drinks a bit too much and nods off; sometime later, he is woken by a ringing doorbell. He opens up to find himself face to face with a six-foot dancing carrot stick (Jon Riddleberger) and that's when the fun really starts.

Although the palpable sense of emotional and physical isolation inherent in Bill's 44th may seem to have been derived from the pandemic, the show was actually conceived back in 2016. What started as a five-minute slam-piece for a New York puppet festival earned a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation and became a full-length piece in 2020 before adding an extra puppeteer and debuting in 2021. This rocky road may account for some of the tonal jumps during the 55-minute running time but, ultimately, this hangs together well all things considered.

Eamon Fogarty's jazzy score provides impressive dramatic heft as it saunters between the initial laid back grooves to the more engaging and jaunty melodies of the dream sequences. One particular example of the latter sees a smaller, much younger version of Bill emerge from an exploding TV. We watch him grow through the lens of his birthdays: the gifts go from a toy plane to a watch, the physical settings from family parties to bringing a cake to the office and being cheered (or not) by colleagues. The hair on his bonce disappears and, perhaps by way of compensation, mini-Bill gains a tinier version of the hefty pornstar 'tache worn with aplomb by his larger self. Through the prism of this "Bill of birthdays past", our central character comes to terms with his current predicament and embraces his remembrances and his life with renewed vigour.

James and Manjuck are skilful puppeteers who use this tale of miserable solitude to create a real sense of connection with and between those in the room. Even when watching the wilder elements of Bill's booze-fuelled nightmare or seeing him marinate in his pathos-filled world, it is hard not to feel empathy for his situation.

He is perhaps emblematic of a wider social malaise where many elderly (and not so elderly) folk, for one reason or another, feel cut off from society. This is even more relevant in the current cost of living crisis with plenty of older folk having less and less money to spend on socialising. If you have time to befriend someone who would appreciate some conversation, either over the phone or in person, there are a number of charity-run schemes that could do with your help (for example, the one run by Age UK). An hour of your time could make someone's day.

Bill's 44th continues at the Barbican Centre until Saturday 4 February.

Photo Credit: Richard Termine

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