Review: THIS & THAT, Barbican Centre

The MimeLondon festival ends with an award-winning demonstration of shadow-puppetry and animation.

By: Feb. 18, 2024
Review: THIS & THAT, Barbican Centre
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Review: THIS & THAT, Barbican Centre Appearing down in the Barbican’s Pit theatre as the final part of this year’s MimeLondon, This & That from Phil Soltanoff and Steven Wendt is an oblique and often frustrating hour of shadow puppetry and animation.

The pair received the Jim Henson Award for Innovation from the Puppeteers of America last year for this work. Its self-deprecatory name could be an allusion to its origins. As Soltanoff says in the programme: “We began very humbly. There was no master plan. Steven and I took some old sound and video equipment that was lying around in storage and put it in my studio in Hoboken New Jersey. Then we played with the stuff. And continued playing.” 

Review: THIS & THAT, Barbican Centre
Photo credit: Brian Rogers

The set up is fairly simple with two sets of equipment. Wendt’s area has a camera set up on a tripod, some lights, projectors, a lamp and a screen on the back wall while Soltanoff has an array of instruments with which he scores the different sections. 

As suggested by the name and this physical separation, there is an implicit duality here which carries over into the show’s structure. The initial phase is an abstract series of images where the pair noodle around in real-time by adding their own visual effects and a variety of sounds ranging from jazz to opera.

Patterns of dots and egg-like objects are presented with live touches added as we go along. A lamp bulb attached to a microphone attempts to take flight, patterns of dots dance around, egg-like shapes morph into other shapes and small green insects skitter around. There is no discernible narrative, merely a series of concepts that in and of themselves seem rough around the edges.

Review: THIS & THAT, Barbican Centre
Photo credit: Brian Rogers

The second part is far more relatable and relies on Wendt’s fine shadow-puppetry skills. These aren’t ground-breaking or eye-popping by any means but certainly more of a crowd-pleaser than the first half. The slow-but-steady trickle of audience departures slows considerably as country songs play out and we are presented with the amusing silhouettes of a cowboy and a horse. 

We then enter a more engaging and emotional phase as Wendt mimics a mother holding a child as she travels over the sea while Soltanoff’s playing takes a more sombre and serious turn. The pair demonstrate their storytelling chops here with this brief episode which brims with narrative power. This, unfortunately, is not only the high point but a bittersweet ending of sorts with the rest of the hour taken up with a tiresome reverse retread of everything we’ve seen before, much of which failed to capture the attention the first time around. This show doesn’t so much stick the landing as dives nose-first into the ground.

Most of This & That is the kind of vaguely interesting light installation that the Barbican Centre would set up in the foyer and most people would walk past with nary a glance. When artistic redemption does come, it comes too late. Even with Soltanoff's lowballing of expectations in the programme, this hotchpotch of ideas still feels more of a work-in-progress than the finished product. Ultimately, this unfocussed melange of shadow-puppetry and animation is neither this nor that.

Photo credit for main image: Steven Wendt