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Billy the Mime – Edinburgh Festival review

Monday, August 06 2012

Shocking, touching, very funny – Billy the Mime has a truly wonderful show, but seems overly obsessed by the dark stuff

Billy the Mime

I doubt you'll find a more exquisite performer at the Fringe than Steven Banks, aka Billy the Mime. A man once tutored by Marcel Marceau, Banks is making his Edinburgh debut aged 51 following moderate success in the US.

This is probably a well-timed debut, given the popularity of cabaret/variety acts at the moment, particularly The Boy With Tape On His Face and Dr Brown. They're the new face of old forms, and this one in particular is so malleable and expressive a mere tweak of the face muscles can conjure a whole story. Physically he's straight up and down like a pencil.

Banks's "sell" is that he does mimed vignettes that tell the story of controversial or sensitive subjects. So we get the Michael Jackson life story, 9/11 and "Whitney Houston's Last Bath", told with detail and without flinching from subjects like paedophilia, Islamist fundamentalism and drug addiction respectively. The portrayals of these darker moments is captivating, and not just because they're contentious, chiefly because he is such a high-end performer. He is never anything less than graceful. It's not so much mime as dance. The moment where he portrays a Twin Towers worker edging along a ledge and hurling themself off is shocking, memorable for the right reasons, respectful, and therefore kind of beautiful. These set pieces are punctuated by little physical jokes, just to keep things light, and in the case of Whitney, a touching tribute.

Another highlight is the Charles and Diana story, during which Charles is skewered as a neglectful monster, plus you see one of the most grim sex scenes you'll see in a comedy show.

His targets do feel pretty soft though. Legitimate, but soft, and a little predictable. By the time the Priest and the Altar Boy arrives, you get the feeling you've seen it before, no matter how impeccably performed it is. Nor is anything new brought to the stories. No less impressive but more enjoyable are when Banks selects more original subjects – his History of Art timeline is a borderline masterpiece with some silly justifications for how Jackson Pollock and the ancient Egyptians came to do what they did.

Likewise, the finalé – The Clown and the Beautiful Woman – which is truly wonderful as well, Banks moving into the audience to pick out a woman to help tell the story and leading her through a compendium of dance styles, before their romance breaks down. Banks benefits tonight from having a particularly impressive partner, who seemed genuinely swept away by the moment.

It's a slightly strange package overall, but most ultimately it's amazing how compelling Banks's stories are even though we know exactly what will happen. A little less darkness and a little more light could turn this into a truly exceptional hour. Nonetheless, it comes highly recommended, just not to those easily offended.

4 stars

Billy the Mime is on at 6.15pm at Just the Tonic Caves


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