Arturo Brachetti: Change
The West End is full of spectacular effects, big, technological showpieces to astound the audience. Yet in the Garrick Theatre, a man is entertaining several hundred people by doing shadow puppets.
The scene is part of Arturo Brachetti’s crusade to convince the world that variety is not dead. This charming Italian is acclaimed as a quick-change artist – surely one of the least-practised of the vaudeville arts – but is also an accomplished magician, able to produce a garden’s worth of flowers from thin air, and fine physical comedian.
Change showcases all these talents through a glib narrative that’s part history lesson, part maudlin twaddle about preparing for the ‘final transformation’ of death. And, despite the simple joy of the shadow puppet sequence, it’s all presented with clever theatrics, based around a giant revolving cube of tricks.
These are attempts to fix an apparently unfixable problem – of stretching a single variety turn into a 90-minute show. The whole genre is built on the idea of a diverse ensemble performing short-but-stunning set pieces, building up into a night of, well, variety. With just one performer, it’s much more difficult prospect.
This isn’t to undermine Brachetti’s incredible talent at what he does. The costume changes are often instant…. within a single blast of a pyrotechnic he transforms from his default outfit into a Grenadier guard; or beneath a shower of glitter his well-tailored suit turns from black to white. But once you’ve impressively demonstrated you can do that; where do you go? That’s the question Brachetti and director Sean Foley can’ quite answer.
The elaborate outfits he slips instantaneously into do not make characters, so he just shows us his new clobber then it’s onto the next one, like a one-man catwalk show. His Hollywood sequence is probably the best extended use of his ability, since each creation is instantly known; although his run through the work of Fellini is unlikely to strike a similar chord with most audiences.
It’s also an odd choice of subject since the show is clearly aimed at a family audience – and children weaned on the effects of Hollywood or the graphics of video games may well be dazzled to see the real-life equivalent.
But the truth is that the impressive staging and overblown narrative detract from Brachetti’s skills, which work best on a human level: whether struggling to play a violin with an extraneous arm, or reviving a simple 400-year-old hat routine.
These are the pieces that would work best on any variety bill, the same today as it has always been. But fans of the genre might be better of with a more genuine revival such as the unfailingly entertaining La Clique, rather than an overambitious attempt to make one ‘spesh act’ become the whole show.
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