Toy Trains and Tiny Winters
In some ways, Ramesh Meyyappan's mime productions are a reminder of how little is required to create compelling theatre: a performer, a space, an hour. But they are also a reminder of how much is needed: an acute sense of character, story and pacing; charisma; passion; majestic talent.
In Gin and Tonic and Passing Trains, Meyyappan freely adapts Charles Dickens' The Signal-Man, a short story in which one of Dickens' naïve, well-meaning everymen (think Nicholas Nickleby) interviews a railway signalman plagued by ghostly apparitions. In transforming this staid, literary two-hander into a vibrantly visual one man show, Meyyappan and director Mark Smith dispense with the narrator character and play very loosely indeed with their source material. Ironically, in doing so, they make it more Dickensian. You'd expect Dickens, the great social critic, the writer of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, to examine how the signal-man's working conditions - his long years of boredom, trapped in a dingy signal box - lead to his insanity and the ghostly visions that precipitate his death. But, although Dickens briefly considers this, he ultimately declares supernatural forces as the cause of the signal-man's tragedy.
Meyyappan is far more interested in natural causes, and he presents us with the moving emotional journey of this stationary individual. We begin with hope and humour. We see the newly employed signalman arrive at his dilapidated signal box and engage in a good-natured struggle to make it liveable. The light bulb is not his friend. The bats in the rafters resist him. But the signal-man loves his tiny new home - we see his delight in a simple cup of tea or in the folding mechanism of his wall bed - and he potters about, haphazardly but with a certain doggedness, until the lights are lit, the bats are banished, and the railway points are oiled and gleaming.
This is the simplest and least eventful of narratives, and few performers would be able to make it as enchanting as Meyyappan did. Obviously, there is delight in seeing Meyyappan create the world around him: conjuring books and beds and boilers out of thin air, and becoming many of the creatures and objects he interacts with. For example, I defy anyone to keep from grinning when he transforms himself into a cupboardful of resentful bats. But there is more to his performance than the mime's ability to make something out of nothing: Meyyappan is able to pull off a magic trick I have never seen anyone manage before. Somehow he is able to invest in his character fully, living every moment onstage afresh, while simultaneously he steps apart from his character and seems almost to sit down next to you, whispering in your ear and drawing your attention to the best bits. It's like watching a DVD with the world's most helpful commentary track.
I don't know how he does this, but I do know it enables him to create some magical moments of theatre. At one point, Meyyappan stuck out his left arm, palm upwards, and waggled his fingers. I immediately knew this was a plume of smoke from a distant steam train and, synecdochically, the train itself. I must clarify: the gesture looked nothing like a train. Granted, I would have eventually worked out what it signified from context and from what happened next - but I didn't need to work it out: I understood immediately. This was because while Meyyappan the performer was making his abstract gesture onstage, Meyyappan the commentator was sitting beside me and whispering, like a teacher, to me, his eager student, "Look: a train!"
And inside the train was a tiny world. Another thing I find magical about Meyyappan's performances is that I can never be sure whether he actually mimed the things I remember seeing or whether I came up with them myself. For example, I think he mimed an old gent making his way to his seat, and a small child playing in the buffet car. On the other hand, I'm fairly sure he didn't mime a waiter carrying a stack of plates and rocking with the gentle motion of the train. But I see all of this anyway: I see the old man's white beard, dun tweeds and stick; the child's fair hair; the waiter's look of concentration. And even if I misremember and he did mime all of these, then I supplied the soundtrack myself, and I can still hear the old man's apologetic grunts, the child's giggles, the clink of the waiter's china. Again, synecdoche: Meyyappan focuses precisely on a small detail and lets his audience fill in the rest of the picture.
As the signal-man watches this life-filled train pass by, you sense that he is part of it. He is a friend to the passengers, a comrade to the driver - all share the same destination. But then the train passes and all its life goes with it. The signal-man's face falls and he turns back to his shack, but it is clean and empty and there is nothing to do.
Dickens' short story takes place over the last two days of the signal-man's life, so the crushing boredom that must compose his daily existence is merely alluded to and inferred by the reader. Meyyappan shows it directly. He sits against a wall in his shack and, in the sinking of his shoulders, gravity doubles. In the aspect of his arms, the temperature drops. In the blank, brokenness of his expression, ten years are condensed into a minute. Time, like trains, can shrink to a single image.
It is here that Meyyappan and Smith add a plot point not found in Dickens' original: the signal-man turns to drink. Naturally, Meyyappan is a wonderful stage drunk. He rolls around his shack with a look of sodden glee on his face. He seems to make friends with the floor, the chairs, the bed - ribbing them and laughing at imagined jokes. We see how gin is a too bright, too shallow substitute for the human fellowship he too briefly shares with the passengers of passing trains. Beneath the broad comedy of the performance, we sense a Dickensian outrage that people were once made to live under these conditions.
And in among these bright, loud images, something dark and silent: the signal-man glimpses the figure of a man with one arm in front of his eyes and the other waving above his head. He is disturbed by the image - well, it is disturbing: somehow it is flat and barren while everything else is rounded with life. This image recurs throughout the piece and its appearances were the only times when I didn't know exactly what was going on (I had not yet read Dickens' story). Indeed, the second time the image occurred, I asked my friend beside me what it meant. He didn't know. The third time I saw it, I realised that I was not meant to understand it yet, but, ironically, I finally understood it: Meyyappan was foreshadowing the signal-man's fate - the image was him, waving at an oncoming train, blinded by its headlights, desperately trying to stop it crashing due to a points failure his drunken negligence has caused.
This strikes me as a very brave choice. Although I was able to follow everything Meyyappan did, I had to work hard to do so, never taking my eyes from the stage for a second. Of course, that's part of the thrill: the mime artist works with you to create something out of nothing, and the images you then see are the reward for your efforts. But when you try and fail to see, as I did the first two times with the waving figure, you feel let down or incompetent. You worry that you will fail to see again. You worry that you have missed something important. Meyyappan surely knows this. But such is his confidence as a performer that he knew he could immediately assuage the audience's worries and draw them right back into the story. And then when the true nature of the waving figure was revealed, the payoff would be all the greater.
The signal-man sacrifices his life to save the train, and we then see him wake into the afterlife, still in his train-wrecked body. He pulls back his spilled guts into his stomach. He reattaches his peeled-off face. These mimed images were so graphic that the audience collectively gasped, but they were also, unavoidably, comic - indeed, I can't remember a funnier time at the theatre than a similar sequence in Meyyappan and Smith's 2005 show, This Side Up. But here I thought the comedy misplaced. Meyyappan had created a real frisson with the waving figure and had earned a moment of true pathos with the signal-man's self-sacrifice. It seemed a shame to undermine the purity and power of the moment with laughter.
But this is the only quibble I have with a production that was otherwise sheer delight from start to finish. Those of you who have not yet seen one of Meyyappan's shows, hold your heads in shame and place a standing order with SISTIC. He may be the best we have.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /