Judging by its closing night, the first Edinburgh Contemporary Clown Festival has succeeded in its aim of “nourish[ing] our ever-growing clown community.” Sáras Feijóo, the festival’s artistic director, introduces herself to everyone at the door and welcomes them to the Assembly Roxy. After the final show ends, the audience, many of whom have taken part in workshops earlier in the day, are invited to join in a group photo and a “closing ceremony”, which consists of Feijóo offering heartfelt thanks and well wishes to the circle of people who have stayed – which is almost everyone.
The clowning tradition on display is European, and many of the participants are from France, Spain, or Brazil. Johnny Melville himself is a seventy year-old ex-Leither, who bears a striking resemblance to Sean Connery in some lights, and lives in Spain. Expat British culture tends to be frozen in time; people who have left Britain decades previously draw their identities from the music, television and politics contemporary to the time they left. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, this clown show, which references the Blairs, cigarette commercials, Scottish Caledonian Airways, and the Sex Pistols, feels anything but contemporary.
Well, that is slightly unfair – there is a lot of punning on Theresa May’s surname, and at least at the beginning, the theme of the show is Brexit. Melville enters onto a stage empty but for a crate covered with a Union flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the European flag. He mouths “can you hear me?”, but the audience cannot. When he bangs his head, it becomes clear that there is a sheet of glass at the front of the stage. To solve the problem, he finds a sparkler, and with playful delight that the audience shares in, he discovers that he can use it to cut a Johnny Melville shaped hole in the pane – which he steps through, and begins.
Unfortunately Melville’s mime, initially charming (if rather unoriginal) does not entertain for long. Poor attention to detail means that the audience do not believe that objects are really there. During longer sequences it feels like watching a game of charades – at times when the audience struggles to understand, Melville seems close to saying “come on guys, you know this one!”
He is at his best when he has a toy to play with. One fun section involves a toilet plunger, which becomes an Olympic torch, a candle, an umbrella, and a wooden leg. In another, he invites an audience member on stage to ride an invisible motorcycle, whose engine is animated by a (real) kazoo in the rider’s mouth. When it becomes clear his volunteer cannot get a sound out of the instrument, he tinkers with the bike’s invisible engine, whilst offering hints on correct playing technique, until the engine honks into life, to applause from the crowd.
Melville’s displays one the most important qualities of a clown, which is a great generosity of energy. Although onside, the audience were often quiet, and he is not fazed by this. However, his characters are rather flat, and the story difficult to follow. This is mainly due to the disruptive number of cringeworthy asides: in “The Best of Johnny,” Melville turns the dad-joke into an art form.