The first of the three “bills” is called “Papa”. This centres around Hunt performing a young child in the 1930s (which is stated in the programme) playing on a train platform somewhere in Europe when he really shouldn’t be. Hunt pulls out various toys to play with from his suitcase before settling on a cricket bat, stumps, and an imaginary ball which Hunt indicated the location of when tossing it about by whistling. Hunt makes excellent use of the live audience by having the audience throw him the ball, seeing as the boring adults around him won’t play with him. After smashing into a window of some kind, Hunt feigns crying and gets his dad to argue his defence before going off and getting to more mischief. (All the adults speak gibberish which has been recorded previously which is quite effective.) This made me feel like there were no stakes for this child. It’s not as much watching someone get into trouble if there are no consequences for them.
As I watch “Papa”, I also struggle to pinpoint the scene in a particular time as Hunt was dressed in generic old-timey dress (which is fine for the purposes of this show). However, there are some diegetic sounds that indicate a steam train while others indicate a high-speed modern train. There’s also another section of the performance where Hunt gets stuck on the other platform and must somehow make his way back, only to squeeze through the cars of the train to pop out the other side. Having cars that have doors on both sides of the train which will be open at the same time, allowing people on two platforms to pile in or out onto, is something from the now. These elements are fun to watch Hunt play with but don’t fit within the 1930s timeframe set. Does it need to be in that time? And why Europe (especially when Hunt counts to three in English)?
The second of the “bills” is “Treble in Paradise”. This is my favourite of the three. It had a clear beginning, middle, and end, with new discoveries for the audience at each section, and a little lesson in humility at the end. An arrogant conductor drops dead and goes to a heaven where he must (the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah comes to mind at this point) play a tune that pleases the Lord. Showing off some fun clarinet skills, Crossley-Pritchard makes the audience his choir and lets us sing a song of a ghastly, nasally “nee” sound. This is glorious. The audience tries oh so hard not to laugh at ourselves as we sound so delectably ugly. “Treble in Paradise” manages to keep us engaged in the story, the character, his growth, and have some silly fun. Bravo.
The third and last of the “bills” is “Piccup”. Kellett plays Peek, a flightless fowl who is a stinky bird and needs to bathe but can’t pick up the soap. I am disheartened to see the fabulous costume promised in the promo images is not to be, but this is made up for by an impressively made mask with a kazoo inside to make Peek’s noises. However, the heavy wig Kellett wears cuts down her face even more and she has a very small frame to pour her expressions out to the audience.
My issue with this piece is again one of stakes. A classic clowning convention is about creating stakes and drama over something inherently mundane and achievable. In this case, Peek fails to pick up a bar of soap with their wings (Kellett’s hands were covered in red gloves and feathers). This premise lacks stakes for me to personally connect with, as the physicality of humanoid bird meant that to pick up a bar of soap is not outside the realm of reason, especially when other props are picked up off the ground later in the skit. If Kellett’s costume could have hindered her or if the physicality is such that it is clear this is an impossible task for Peek, this would have given more humour and raised the stakes. Peek gets more frustrated and pulls out two large cooking chopsticks. The audience thinks, surely now, Peek will get the soap as it is within reason that some well manoeuvred chopsticks could pick up a bar of (dry) soap. Not so. Peek brings out props from the wings – a plunger, some large secateurs, and finally a ladder and flyfishing rod, only to have on the end of the string a tinfoil hook. We KNOW this won’t work. So why are we watching?
To the credit of the performers, they are wonderful to watch. Their faces hold many varying expressions which truly lends itself to clowning. The way the three of them interact with one another as their base characters in the pre-show and in between the stories is entertainingly jovial – I particularly like the colourful bowler hat theft vignette. All three of them interact with the audience in a way that makes us feel comfortable and helps spread the joy of silliness. These are core skills to have as clowns and for this, I applaud them. Despite all I have said so far, only having a two week rehearsal (and probably also devising) period is pretty mindboggling when you see the characters and stories they have made in that time. But do I recommend others to see this show? Not yet.
The bones of BILL BILL BILL are there. It needs refining and developing and if these talented performers want to do that and explore more clowning, I’m sure the next time BILL BILL BILL graces the BATS stage, it will be to much more applause and laughter.
If you want to see this show for yourself and not take my word for it, you’re welcome to. Tickets are available at the BATS website until Saturday 12th of November.