‘Zebra’, by Wes Peden

Review from: Southbank Centre, London International Mime Festival; 26th January 2020

This review is written from the perspective of seeing previous work of the performer, including multiple viewings of Zebra.

Is there anyone who loves juggling more than Wes Peden does? Short answer, no. Long answer…noooooooo.

Proof needed? Well it exists, and its a fifty minute solo juggling performance called Zebra.

Zebra is the latest of Wes Peden’s full-length solo shows. Created three years ago as a 20-minute piece, it has evolved and expanded, premiering at full length in March 2019 and remaining in that final form for London International Mime Festival 2020 (my second viewing).

It’s a very black and white affair. The stage is set at each corner with lights, with cables running the outline, framing a rectangle. There’s a lonely looking record player in one corner, and various props and records carefully displayed too. Our performer appears, looking kinda like Cruella De Ville going through an 80s lampshade phase. This show is nothing if not consistent with its tassel theme. And it works. Tassels on costume, stage, props and various hilarious places. It’s not unjustified, as one of the most enchanting sections to watch is the tasselled rope manipulation. It’s a very clever way of creating a black and white theme that doesn’t feel trapped into straight lines and sections. The flow-y white on black keeps it all from being too straight cut.

The show is a collection of routines, interspersed with moments of speaking into a microphone and changing of records. The record player provides the sound track for the performance and is controlled by Wes on stage, just like the lights. He can adjust and fiddle with them as he pleases, giving his stage presence a very clown-butler feel. He’s there to carefully fold the skipping rope, to turn lights on and off, to lay things out with counted steps, all in service of a higher being: The Juggling! Wes has defiantly improved on his clown, the show is peppered with clowning moments; unscrewing a bottle, holding too many things at once*, watching a record spin a juggling ball around… These moment get great responses from the audience and even though they are sometimes held a bit too long, or not long enough, the moments are there to play with as much as the props are.

A man with his back to us reaches an arm out into blackness, bent at the elbow, palm upwards. His vest is black, his short hair is black. The background is black. In the space above his head and upturned hand are four white juggling clubs, one above the other in space, all tilted at roughly similar thirty degree angles.
Wes Peden in ‘Zebra’ IMAGE: Luke Burrage

Messing with doing your own lights and sound might be seen as a waste of time for most artists, but here every chance to move an object is a chance to juggle! So these moments work well at keeping a strong theme throughout the show, keeping it all moving. It ends up being a nice mix of long sections and short sections.

In many ways, Zebra is like an album; you have an opening number that sets the feel of the whole thing, you have your five club tracks that are sure to be the number one chart toppers, you have a more pop-y up-tempo track with a jump-rope that’ll get people moving, then you can put your more experimental pieces in, really go tassel crazy. You can put in “behind the scenes” parts to an album, let the audience see what happens if you were to just keep recording between songs (or when you’re changing the record, whichever this metaphor suits best) and then end with your very own sentimental ode to joy. The tracks have their own distinct feel, but they have to go together and in the right order, which has been done well here in Zebra. Each section taken by itself would be nice to watch, but all together they create something greater than the sum of the parts, just like a good album should.

Every show Wes creates has a piece of him to express. So many of his acts and video releases seem to be expressing a similar part of him and, as nice as it is to see him express a wacky, colourful, juggling explosion of constant energy that makes you feel like you just went five rounds against a kaleidoscope, its actually far more satisfying to be taken slowly into the mind of someone meticulously presenting some tricks they love. And that takes balls. And clubs. This show feels so personality driven it’s something that could only have been created with a lifetime of juggling and performance behind it. Watching is like listening to someone speaking inner thoughts, it’s just that the language is juggling.  

Interestingly, Zebra might be the slowest paced show you’ll ever see Wes do, but thats a bonus not a set back. It’s rare a performer can hold and repeat patterns long enough for an unaccustomed mind to follow each object and figure out exactly what it is thats going on. As soon as an audience are given breathing space around juggling tricks they can become so much more engrossed – it helps them give value to the difficulty and variety of tricks. I also found that in any section where you aren’t preoccupied with looking at the person doing the juggling (like their expression or their body language), you suddenly find yourself watching the juggling a lot more. In Zebra, Wes does this by performing a section facing the back of the stage, and also a section where his face is covered. Its weird how I’ve never noticed how much you end up watching the juggler not the trick, until suddenly you aren’t given the option anymore!

There’s little to fault here. That is to say, so long as you don’t hate juggling, then you will enjoy this show. And hey, if you do hate juggling, maybe you should go see it anyway, you might discover that its not such a black and white matter.

*yes I do realise this is kind of the whole point of juggling, I’m just saying it was funny…

Online programme notes are linked here

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