Review: Tape Face at The Garrick Theatre

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The name ‘Tape Face’ doesn’t exactly scream comedy. In fact, to my mind it suggests quite the opposite. Maybe it’s just me but, when asked to see the show, the first thing that came to mind was a lurid sex act more likely to be found at the now defunct Madame Jojo’s. How wrong I was. A smidgen of pre-show research reveals all, from early Fringe Festival performances, to critical accolades in the star’s native New Zealand, to the Las Vegas debut on America’s Got Talent. At this point in my pre-show digging I’m still not entirely convinced this is for me. After disposing of the aforementioned fears of carnal exploitation, I’m now concerned that I’ve been roped in to see a circus clown. Worse: a mime. Massive respect goes to Sam Wills, The Man With Tape On His Face, for not only challenging my perception of this throwback mode of performance, but also for ridding me of my fears and allowing my inner child burst from me like a xenomorph.

If there was ever a night to return to a childlike state, it was this one. The day I went to see Tape Face was also the day of the General Election polls, and suffice to say I was feeling a bit on edge. Riled up by the events of the day, I was primed to read more articles, listen to more debate, and engage in more heated WhatsApp discussions with family members, but a signal dead-zone at The Garrick stayed my hand and held my tongue. At a time when my head overflowing with information, the words ‘strong and stable’ bashing into ‘weak and wobbly’ as they rattled around my brain, an expertly crafted routine from a man of no words was strangely poignant.

Will's appeal, not just on this most anxiety inducing of nights, lies in the simplicity of his act. The performance moves between two realms: the waking and the dreaming. The show begins with Tape Face in his dressing room with nearly two hours to go before the curtain lifts. The floor is littered with props and the radio softly plays the shipping forecast, which of course lulls him to sleep. In his dreams, an audience appears (that’s us) from which Wills plucks members of his choosing to take part in what can only be described as some serious silliness. From libidinous oven mitts to a staple-gun shoot out, a Biggles impression to a Patrick Swayze bit, nothing is off limits, and everything is surreal. The catalogue of props are nothing more than everyday house-hold items, transformed by the power of imagination and a good backing track.

Much of the value of Tape Face lies in its inclusiveness. The Garrick is a large space, and many a fine Shakespearean actor has trodden these boards, yet Wills succeeds in creating a sense of intimacy between men and women, young and old, none of whom had to speak the same language. My heart sank each time Wills paced off stage and into the stalls, searching for his next victim, but although many of the chosen drudged onto the stage as nervously as I would have, such is the power of Wills' physical comedy that within seconds sweaty palms were replaced with beaming smiles.

Music is a key element of the act. Each song used is pretty generally well-known and often inspires some under-the-breath humming and mutual nods of recognition between neighbours. During a '99 Red Balloons' bit, in which each audience member is given a balloon to blow up and throw to the front of the stage, we all clubbed together, handing each other balloons to punch forward. When a nearby audience member is chosen, everyone in a 10 seat radius laughs just that bit louder for them.

There are moments in which the formula is in danger of becoming repetitive, and fans of Tape Face will have seen some of the sketches before, but Wills always manages to bring the audience back around. A more complex moment immediately following the interval, in which a plate spinning cabaret becomes a powerful metaphor for fragility and a yearning for acceptance, is genuinely moving. A few more moments like this wouldn't go amiss, but then we're not really here to think so much as we are to switch off for a moment, and Tape Face allows us to do just that.

The show continues until 23rd July 2017.

Photo credit: Matt Crockett