A new resident shakes up the status quo in this wordless Gallic Gagfest

Words Mark Fisher

We’re in the restaurant of the Théâtre du Rond-Point in Paris where the cast and crew of Fishbowl have settled in for a post-show meal. Actor Olivier Martin-Salvan grabs everyone’s attention with his tale about the time he ate an indigestible Chinese delicacy just before going on stage.

The table is in uproar as he describes a performance repeatedly interrupted by his bodily functions. Most of it is unprintable, but let’s just say he had to exit the stage backwards so no one saw the state of his trousers. We fall about laughing.

Our conversation has taken this scatological turn because of Fishbowl (known as Bigre in France). This wordless comedy about bedsit living mixes clever visual gags with a seam of toilet humour that builds from fart gags to something far more explosive. To say more would be to spoil the surprise, but it’s very funny.

The show is the work of Pierre Guillois who, in 2013, gave his friends Martin-Salvan and Agathe L’Huillier a challenge. He loved the idea of acting on stage but,
as a writer and director, he didn’t rate his speaking voice. Would it be possible, he wondered, for them to devise a show that expressed itself in a visual language, allowing him to perform too?

“He didn’t want us to speak but we didn’t want to do mime either,” says L’Huillier. “We wanted to tell a story that didn’t need words.”

When he was a student and then an impoverished artist, Guillois had rented what Parisians call a chambre de bonne, a top-floor apartment built for domestic servants where everyone lives cheek by jowl. With a bit of artistic licence, he reckoned they could put three such apartments on stage and build a comedy about mismatched neighbours – one punctilious, one bookish, the third

trying to teach herself everything from hairdressing to osteopathy in order to get a job. Living separate lives but unable to avoid one another, they would have to learn to get along – perhaps even to grow fond of each other.

“My character is the new arrival who upsets the equilibrium and breaks the friendship,” says L’Huillier. “One falls in love when he sees her; the other doesn’t like her. Meanwhile, she has no job and doesn’t know what to do, so she learns by books, but it’s catastrophic because she fails everything.”

Telling a story in this way was easier said than done. Even after developing the show for a year before its 2014 premiere, they continued to refine it, ditching material, re-ordering routines and finessing what became a highly technical show (not for nothing do the two stage managers take their bow with the actors). There are times when you’re watching three comic routines at once; other times when your focus is on one apartment alone. Biscuits tumble out of cupboards, underwear is whisked away on the wind and a fish gets doused in toilet cleaner – all with razor-sharp precision.

“Sometimes we’d have an idea that was good on paper, but so bad when we tried it for real,” says L’Huillier. “Every time, we had to try it with real props to see if it would work. We had three or four hours of material, but just kept one hour for the show. Even though it is now fixed, we still work on scenes and have little rehearsals.”

Their hard work paid off. So much of a hit did it become, the Molière Award-winning comedy is now performed by a team of actors who’ll be in rotation with the original three during the Fringe.

For all the laughter, however, what’s crucial to L’Huillier is the emotional truth. This is a play that deals with loneliness, friendship, romance, separation and motherhood and all the attendant feelings of jealousy, guilt and embarrassment. “In the big laughs, we want a dramatic sense,” she says. “I took inspiration from the movies of Charlie Chaplin, where there is always a feminine figure who is melancholic. It was my role to support the dramatic story.”

Relishing the prospect of making her Edinburgh debut, she arrives in Scotland confident in the knowledge this wordless comedy also works in translation. “We were in Toronto a month ago and met our first Anglophone audience,” she says. “It was fantastic to see they have the same sense of humour.”

WHERE & WHEN

Fishbowl, Pleasance Courtyard – The Grand, 31 July–26 August (not 14), 1pm From £9

pleasance.co.uk

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