The Emperor of America

This fast-paced piece of Wild West-inspired physical theatre is an innovative and extremely entertaining romp, including gorgeous girls in voluminous outfits and suave men with elaborate moustaches. Tongue in cheek, irreverent and more than a bit naughty at times, it’s packed with drawling southern accents, vintage costumes and a live band on double bass, drums and violin. It’s fabulous to watch. Just don’t ask what on earth it’s about.

As well as being imaginative, physically dexterous and unafraid to take risks they avoid the trap of appearing too self-consciously earnest.

The story, told largely through mime, is impossible to follow, the actors moving in a whirl of colour and lightning quick character changes. But in physical theatre (like opera or contemporary dance) plot is always more of a guideline to help the audience put the various visual feats into context – clever precise mime, gymnastics and punchlines that rely just as much on a well-placed gesture as a witty one liner.

For those who feel the need, however, a synopsis would be as follows: set in San Francisco when it was the capital of the Wild West. Cue lawlessness, disorder, swinging saloon bar doors, pistols at dawn, debauchery, corsets and stockings, as well as a central character who crowns himself Emperor of America and generally makes life worse for all around him before meeting a sticky end.

All these various elements are created flawlessly by the cast who work with minimal props to create well-timed visual montages (arms swinging open for the saloon doors etc) and have fizzing onstage chemistry. There is a huge variety of musical accompaniment as well, everything from whimsical folk to rambunctious honky tonk.

The company, Breadknives, are very accomplished. As well as being imaginative, physically dexterous and unafraid to take risks they avoid the trap of appearing too self-consciously earnest. When not in the midst of the action, all have a similar expression that is an incongruous mixture of boredom and surprise, it’s very comic.

Inevitably, this kind of abstract theatre is a hard sell to wary audiences – most will find it impossible to follow – but their sense of humour makes it accessible in different ways and they deserve more than the handful they had on the night I visited.

Reviews by Lettie Mckie

Udderbelly Festival

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Fuelled by the virtuosity of circus and the flair of cabaret, Breadknives bring us the city that broke all the rules: 1860s San Francisco, the Wildest West. At the height of Victorian innovation, in the ruins of the California gold rush, discover larger-than-life characters lifted from the pages of history: ruthless killers, glamorous divas, renegade writers. Meet Joshua Norton, a tramp who declared himself Emperor, and the whole city who played along. Shoot-outs, seductions and wild shenanigans with a Lecoq-trained gang of desperadoes. Rapid-fire physical theatre. 'Infectious eccentricity, limitless joy' **** (ViewsFromTheGods.co.uk).

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