Review: Fishbowl at Pleasance

Fishbowl comes to the Edinburgh Fringe with an impressive pedigree. An award-winning play without a single line of dialogue, it’s gained rave reviews from Le Monde and Le Parisien. Press for this UK premiere invokes comparisons to Charlie Chaplin and Mr Bean.

But comparisons to the greats of slapstick fall flat. What Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean all had was a sense of wonder at what people do to get close to each other. The comedy in Fishbowl owes more to sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, with plenty of Farrelly brothers style gross-out humour thrown in for good measure.

There’s undeniable brilliance to the staging devised by Pierre Guillois, who also brings impressive slapstick abilities to his role. It’s no easy feat to keep an audience’s attention for 75 minutes in a play entirely without dialogue, and Fishbowl pulls it off with ingenious staging and sound design. The set, a dolls-house array of three cramped Parisian attic flats, is a bottomless box of tricks. Three characters with highly distinct styles of interior decoration – personal aesthetic does much of the work of building character in this play – struggle in vain to keep their spaces as distinct. At first, this comic vein, which makes much of the spatial constraints of the stage, seems to promise some insight into the precarity of the renter class.

But Fishbowl, which won the prestigious Molière Prize for Comedy in 2017, has none of the caustic satire of Molière’s farces. The play carefully avoids socio-political matters, instead leaning on the stereotype-laden scenarios of bad sitcom. There’s a “neckbeard” type with a predictable affinity for signifiers of Japanese culture. The only female character naturally becomes a source of romantic competition for the two men, for whom she (incompetently) performs the roles of masseuse, hairdresser, nurse. Mishaps ensue, many of them violent.

Buster Keaton movies also got much of their suspense – and their laughs – from the threat of injury. Think of Keaton desperately hanging from the clock tower’s minute hand in Safety Last. But apart from the odd lumbering policeman or sneering patriarch, Keaton’s characters help each other. The default attitude Fishbowl’s three neighbours take to each other – self-absorbed cruelty – never relents to allow for moments of compassion. One sequence in Fishbowl has a character deliberately knock a neighbour from a high window. Another garrottes a pet.

Plenty of the large audience at Pleasance Grand were kept laughing by Fishbowl’s arsenal of effects, and skilful comic performances. I was left cold by its lack of pathos, the ultimate cruelty of its world. 

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