Cat and M.O.U.S.E: Ollie Smith and Present Attempt at New Art Exchange

Text by Wayne Burrows
Photography by Rosemary Kasili

It’s a curious pairing for this double bill, featuring two shows so different in style, purpose and impact that their conjunction in the same studio theatre space on the same evening seems the result of only one random factor, the happenstance that their titles look so irresistibly good together: Cat in Hell and M.O.U.S.E. As a handle for the evening, Cat and M.O.U.S.E conjures memories of everything from Tom & Jerry, The Cat in the Hat and Mickey Mouse to the antics of Felix, Fat Freddy’s Cat and – a long-time personal favourite – the brick-chucking Ignatz in George Herriman’s sublimely deranged Krazy Kat cartoon-strips of the 1930s. Does the bringing together of these two performances have any other significance than the cartoon fun seemingly promised by the conjoined titles? Well, maybe…

There’s certainly a logic to seeing the two pieces as an exercise in theatrical contrast, between introverted and extroverted performance styles. Present Attempt‘s M.O.U.S.E., the night’s first offering, has two of the London based company’s members, Alex Eisenberg and John Pinder, working in collaboration with 11 year old Sonny Terruli to create a kind of scrambled lo-fi bedtime story that continually interrupts itself and imagines the world seen through the eye of a mouse, or a child, a series of inconsequential gestures and skits that pointedly refuses to make any kind of larger statement.

We begin with a voice in the darkness, reciting a Dr Seuss style rhyme about a mouse (“Mouse is high and mouse is low/Mouse is not as white as snow…”) but the speaker soon becomes distracted as his (and our) eyes adjust and we begin to pick out the chinks of light and modulations of colour within the otherwise dark space. A boy enters, switches on a lamp, then climbs into bed with a book (a copy of Holes by Louis Sachar, a story of futile punishments and victory over repression by a cast of misunderstood children, in case that might be significant) then, after turning a page or two, gives up and hauls a laptop out from under his bedclothes.

Before nodding off, he listens to a kids’ TV style double act, performed unseen by Pinder and Eisenberg, and once he’s safely asleep, the same duo appear onstage wearing mouse-ear hats to perform a series of low key routines. They move Terruli’s bed to arrange wooden pallets for a game of Hangman, in which the answer is ‘pupil’ but the wrong letters spell ‘the mouse’. They arrange the pallets into precarious fences then perch on them to discuss the precise colour of an eye. One plays a song while the other winds up and releases a small flotilla of clockwork mice. It’s never clear whether the actions performed while Terruli sleeps are somehow contained in his imagination, though the idea is strongly implied that this is the enactment of a very particular kind of dream.

Within this, the concept is one of emphasising the small details, perhaps in line with political ideas about the overlooked and the under-sung, scrambling a variety of performance codes and defying the urge to play for obvious significance. There are elements that feel like improvised comedy, framed within a structure that displays all the hallmarks of a traditional children’s theatre show (the signals range from the central role of a child actor to Eisenberg and Pinder’s own quasi fraternal and mostly affable partnership, frequently reminiscent of entertainment duos like Adam & Joe, Ant & Dec or Trevor & Simon). The general feeling is one of unassuming lightness. The point may be to convey a sense of the centrality of what passes unnoticed, but M.O.U.S.E. doesn’t insist on pressing its case to be read in this or any other way. It just is, and we’re pretty much left to take or leave it as we please.

The same couldn’t be said of Ollie Smith’s Cat in Hell, a two-hander (performed by Smith with Olwen Davies) developed as a work in progress during a week-long residency at New Art Exchange. Taking place in what the title, red lighting motif and Smith’s own plastic devil-horns suggest we’re to take to be Hell, it aims for being a kind of rock’n’roll musical comedy in which a demon (Smith) and a cat (Davies) seem to be enduring (or inflicting on each-other) some implicitly eternal torment of frustration. Where M.O.U.S.E. is low-key to the point of erasure, Cat in Hell is all about the implied spectacle, the extroverted theatricality of circus sideshows, rock gigs, cartoons and Las Vegas magic acts.

It’s certainly impressively physical, with Smith making maximum use of his endlessly flexible skinny frame in a series of handcuffed and shackled manoeuvres designed to set up a microphone and stand ready for the performance to begin. While Davies’ cat simply slips off her shackles, Smith’s demon struggles against his limitations with a determination that is both comic and full of tension. Both perform throughout with bags over their heads and in various degrees of containment, whether dancing, miming pre-recorded songs or delivering speeches. Much of the narrative seems concerned with the inverted relationship between cat and demon, as though the latter is supposed to be tormenting the former but can’t quite manage the task.

There’s an implication that the cat may, after all, be the tormentor when a speech talks about a man drowning kittens in a sack, implying that Smith may be that man, now at the mercy of the cats he’d wanted rid of in the eternal afterlife. But generally, the piece doesn’t trouble to frame its interests or explain itself, instead building a kind of cabaret from the inherent comedy of the cunning cat outwitting the figure who might try and control her. As a short piece, clocking in at just under 30 minutes, this worked well enough, but perhaps if it were extended further a more dynamic see-saw in that central power relationship might be needed to sustain interest over a longer haul.

In fact, visually I was strongly reminded of certain elements in early and mid-period Forced Entertainment shows like Club of No Regrets (1993), Showtime (1996) and Pleasure (1997), where the cheap glamour of glittery dresses, Jim Morrison belts, party poppers and hen-night cat-ear headbands collide with more unsettling ideas about constraint, loss of control and emotional violence. Perhaps Smith’s work in progress – already an impressively entertaining production, especially given its week-long gestation – will go on to incorporate more of these darker textures and shifting power-balances within its structure, too. If it does, Cat in Hell will be a show well worth looking out for when it resurfaces in the near future.

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