The limits of mundanity are stretched, tested and above all, played with, in Jonathan Tilley’s work-in-progress show Sailing By. Tilley performs solo as an Old Man who turns the humdrum of his house-bound life into an expression of isolation and sentimentality. Routine becomes disrupted by nuisance, including a ten minute battle-to-the-death with a bee that sees Tilley whipping a rolled up newspaper around the audience. Meanwhile, memory becomes playground for the Old Man, as we see him in touch with a box of affects belonging to a relative.
The items in the box come to define the latter half of the piece, whereas in the former Tilley establishes the banal ho-hum of the everyday life of an elderly person. The Old Man tills through DVDs in the box and recreates his favourite scenes – from Jurassic Park to the Matrix and beyond. It soon becomes clear that this ritualistic play is more than a contrite coping mechanism, but a symbolic remembrance of someone no longer in the Old Man’s life. What begins as slapstick humour soon becomes imbued with nostalgia and a frenzy of catatonic fun.
It is evident immediately that Tilley is a master clown – his outstretched limbs and wildly expressive facial movements drip instant life into the Old Man. Tilley takes everyday objects and breathes Pierrot-esque fancy into each of them with his movement – a tea bag becomes a football, a newspaper a deadly bee-slaying weapon, and two spoons the antennae of a household pest. He dips and dives around the homely but dreary set, evocative instantly of your Grandparents house to the point you feel you can almost smell it. As the shipping forecast drones on behind him, Old Man goes from bumbling around the stage to prancing across it with breakneck speed. No moment is wasted, every move driven by intent to charm and enthral.
A menial soundscape plots Tilley along course between the bee fights, the tea bag keepie-uppies and whimsical cinematic impressions. The piece has a blissful universality – people of all languages can engage and enjoy the silliness and that pushes Tilley’s performance on. The audience participation is wacky but feels fresh, and the engagement directly with the audience breaks up the largely non-verbal performance in a way that means we’re never left disinterested in whatever craziness is about to happen next.
The sentimental elements of the piece develop later on, and the sudden moment of realisation that the piece is considerably more heartfelt than it first appears is well-constructed. In continuing to work on and reframe this piece, Tilley should consider what precisely he is hoping to impact on the audience with the introduction of this sentimental element. While we can see that Old Man has suffered a loss and is living vicariously through the memory box that he finds, we don’t come away feeling as though we know how this sentimentality affects him or his life.
In some ways, the non-verbality of the piece lends to a more open interpretation, but it would be nice to see some integration between the beautifully orchestrated slapstick performance and the piece’s more inward-looking narrative architecture. And I say that as a very light criticism – Tilley is a storytelling clown above anything else, and plaudits go to him for creating something that balances accessibility for all with a narrative that can actually be followed. Equally, I’d note that Old Man spends a lot of time looking bewildered, and while an absolutely hilarious expression, a bit more diversity in his facial reactions to the results of his little household experiments would not go amiss.
Slick, silly and above all sentimental – Sailing By delights and dazzles with clownish charm.
Recommended Drink: Sailing By is either a cup of tea or something Old Man might enjoy, maybe a nice warming brandy.
Performance of Sailing By have now concluded at Prague Fringe 2023. Keep up with Jonathan online for future showings.