To the average Fringe-goer, few words are more likely to trigger a mild sense of panic than “forty-five minutes of mime”. Don’t worry though: there are no Pierrot costumes or invisible walls in Scenes From An Urban Gothic, which actually proves an accessible, humorous, if slightly weird-and-wonderful show. Over the course of those forty-five minutes – accompanied by a soundtrack, but without using his voice – James Cross tells a tale of a rural idyll lost and then restored, as an anonymous country man travels to the big city but finds the pace of urban life more than he can bear.
Some of the mimed imagery is instantly accessible (travelling on the Tube, or walking down a busy street), while other passages are more oblique and creative. Just a couple of times I lost the thread; perhaps some of the cultural references aren’t quite as universal as the show’s creators believe. But the episodic nature of the story, with scenes announced through title cards, meant I never had to wait too long to get back on track.
The title’s presumably a riff on Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, but I have to say I never quite got the connection. Gothic things do happen, however; this city is one of strange and fearsome forces, somewhere between the faceless inhumanity of Metropolis and the out-and-out horror of Quatermass. Religion gets a look-in too, through a climb up a bell tower and a Gregorian chant heard in the most unexpected of places. If I’m honest, I didn’t particularly enjoy these surreal touches, but that’s just a matter of taste; they’re well-integrated into the storyline and have an internal logic of their own.
Much of the humour derives from Cross’s exaggerated physical gestures and contorted posture – his body moves and bends in ways I don’t think mine ever did. I found the frequent Ministry Of Silly Walks leg-waving a little too obvious, but the subtler comic mannerisms were always enjoyable, and he’s not above a dose of childish toilet humour either. The character Cross creates is likeable, cartoonish, and easy to root for; he’s just trying to get on with his life, and his expressive responsiveness to things as mundane as an alarm clock going off give the show plenty of charm.
Perhaps it’s a mistake to look for deep meaning in a show like this one, but there is a basic message there, about finding time for quietness in life and the pleasure to be had from a return to simpler things you once knew. At the end of the day, this idiosyncratic show is big on heart and quirky spectacle, and that’s all it really needs to be. Highly polished and engagingly performed, it might just be the cure for fear of mime.