It is not every night that you get battered with pillows and soaked with wet washing by a family of Russian clowns in Hackney, which is probably just as well, as you would be a bit upset if that happened every time you went to east London. Last night, at the press night of The Family at Hackney Empire, however, it was a delight. Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the audience, trying to protect her notebook.
This is no ordinary family. A heavily pregnant mother, a vodka-swigging father, four children who all smoke and even the red-eyed ghost of granny; it already sounds like a particularly strange episode of Shameless, and that isn’t too far from the truth. Nobody ever says a word, though there are some squeaking toy ducks and some fantastic snoring from dad.
Teatr Licedei is a Russian company, formed by clowns in 1968, including Slava Polunine, who later toured the world with his legendary Snow Show. Anyone who saw that gorgeous spectacle will have some idea what to expect from Licedei. Their humour and nostalgia has a very Russian flavour, but at the heart of this show is a warm, messy, loving family with a demented edge.
The stage is strewn with dolls; small fashion dolls and large baby dolls, stuck to the front of the stage and scattered over a piano. Old photographs are pegged to washing lines which stretch out into the auditorium, and the walls of the family home are corrugated iron with portraits stuck haphazardly on them. This is a chaotic house, and no wonder, with such naughty children; the very first thing we see them do is put clothes pegs all over their snoozing father’s hair, clothes, and even his nose, and then tape his mouth shut to see what happens.
The kids all have their own peculiarities, from the doll-decapitating baby (Elena Sadkova) to the older brother (Kasyan Ryvkin) who conducts an imaginary orchestra which includes some of the audience. In fact, the audience has rather an important part to play in the proceedings; depending on where you are sitting you may be soaked, kissed, beaten with a pillow in an extraordinary pillow fight, engaged in a phone conversation, asked to leave or flirted with. Or all of the above.
Despite the pandemonium and a darker turn of events near the end, what emerges is a picture of a family that could be any family at all. Not perfect, not always happy, but loving and there for each other, most of the time. This is a crazy show, but if you want to laugh like a drain and see some dazzling silliness, this is the place to do it.
The Family is at Hackney Empire until 29 July