Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh Fringe Festival; 8th August 2014
Thomas Monckton is a genius of physical comedy, with an extreme mastery over his every movement, from eyelids to ankles. In collaboration with Finnish company Circo Aereo, the New Zealander has created The Pianist to show off what his gangling limbs, electric hair and dancing fingers can achieve.
Imagine, if you will, the socially outcast reclusive love child of Rik Mayall and Mr Bean. He has been invited to play piano for us, in the velvet draped, carved stone chamber of a private concert hall. It’s a rare event, as witnessed by the clouds of dust that puff from his props. He is proud to be here, and tries his hardest to be the cultured sophisticat a concert pianist is popularly expected to be. As his piano, own physique, and even the lighting operator, conspire against him, a most inventive comedy ensues.
Monckton utilises a range of circus techniques and physical animations in a seamless, plausible flow of absurdities. Juggled manuscript pages, a leapt blink of a hand balance, and innovative use of the piano’s foot-pedal are among the surprising solutions the hapless entertainer finds to the multitudes of problems that beset him, interspersed with frantic and detailed mime skills.
I enjoy the repeated ways the form of his ‘professional pianist’ routines are fastidiously adhered to, even when the man is desperate to get on and play. Monckton is a great clown, and plays upon our reactions throughout – we are a genuine audience, not invisible watchers.
Like always when I watch a great clown, I feel a tug of conflict. I love to laugh at their fooling, but feel ashamed of doing so in the face of their underlying struggles. They show us how mean humankind can be; but also how warm, marvelous and strange.
This show was particularly poignant to me, having lost a long time-family friend earlier this year, who was likewise a mad-haired pianist and composer. I never saw him performing an aerial routine from a troublesome low-hanging crystal chandelier, but I like to imagine it.
Images of conflict and love keep appearing through The Pianist, particularly in the characters that spring to life through cleverly animated body parts, and a complete piano meltdown seems fitting in this catalogue of tragic hilarity. But the question is, can he play? I’m sure the multi-talented Monckton could do almost anything.