Review: Dr Brown, Soho Theatre

Dr Brown

There seems to be growing trend for wordless comedy at the moment. The Boy with Tape on his Face and Dr Brown both won awards at the Edinburgh Festival last summer and it has just been announced that Matt Lucas is working on a new character for a BBC comedy called Pompidou which will have no dialogue at all. Lazy critics will no doubt compare Pompidou to Mr Bean, but Lucas – who certainly has a face for silent comedy – has clearly tapped into something currently in the air. 

And so to Foster's Award winner Dr Brown, who returned to  the Soho Theatre this week after a sell-out run last autumn. I've seen this show three times and each time I spot something I hadn't spotted before but also spot something more confusing. At the start he lurches out into the audience shrouded in a black curtain with just his eyes poking out. My friend thought it symbolised a burqa. This time I thought it was a vagina. Maybe I need to see my therapist again.

Brown, alias American Phil Burgers, studied clowning at the Paris school Ecole Philippe Gaulier, where they famously teach you to release your inner idiot and Brown certainly does that. Sort of. As he stands silently onstage gazing at the audience it is as if there is the Good Brown and the Bad Brown fighting to get out. He tries to suppress lubricious gestures, but fails and apologises. He tries to suppress violent urges but fails and apologies. Maybe Burgers needs to see his therapist again.

Gradually the show, entitled Befrdfgth (no explanation is offered – Be Frightened, Be Very Frightened? Be Afraid, Frankie Goes To Hollywood?) builds from a few meaningless scenes into some kind of narrative. Is that a Greek beggar woman being held prisoner by a soldier? What has that bullfight got to do with anything? Whose baby is Dr Brown giving to a member of the audience to look after? Expressive eyes and subtle hand movements completely shift the mood, showing that body language can speak volumes.

Oh. did I mention that the audience is very, very much part of the show? Having previously seen the show I made sure my friend and I sat in what I calculated were the safest seats – towards the back and in the middle of the row. My friend still ended up with Dr Brown rummaging in her bag and taking a bite out of her sandwich.

The audience participation aspect reaches its apotheosis when, in the final section, one "civilian" ends up in a spontaneous full-throttle double act with Dr Brown. Brown is so good at extracting uninhibited performances that every time I have seen this people ask if it was a stooge. If it is Dr Brown has a lot of friends who want to be stooges because he did the show for a month in Edinburgh. And actually the "victim" in Soho was a friend of a friend so I know for a fact it was unplanned.

It is hard to top this spectacular double act which pulls together all the narrative strands. A couple of final scenes cleverly bring the audience down gently, as if coming up for air from a deep sea dive. I'm sure experts who watch a lot of mime and physical theatre may have seen things like this before, but Burgers/Brown really seems to be doing something special by popularising a discipline like this via the comedy circuit. Stand-up fans can be very conservative but he underlines the fact that in the post-Michael McIntyre world where observational gags rule there are other ways of making people laugh. 

I did notice, however, that there was one too-cool-for-school guy in front of me who didn't crack a smile throughout. Maybe audience members have to release their inner idiot too to enjoy this, but trust me, it is worth it.  Maybe Mr Too-cool-for-school  is the one who really needs to check in with his therapist.

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