The creative team behind the hit French show hopes its comic message and exploration of the absurd will successfully translate to Fringe audiences in Edinburgh
A hoarder, a clean-freak and a bombshell with a penchant for destruction live cheek-by-jowl in adjoining Parisian bedsits. This is Fishbowl's main punchline, which it explores through a series of mostly silent vignettes about the everyday lives of these three lonely misfits. But as anyone who's had to share a living space will know, living in such close proximity to others can lead to some unexpectedly profound discoveries.
'This play, it opens hearts,' says actor and co-writer Agathe L'Huillier. She recounts exchanges she'd had with audience members, who often flock to her after the show with a disarming familiarity to recount their own stories: of torrid affairs with neighbours, or sleeping in hammocks when rooms were too small for a bed. 'I like that it's very popular; people feel they can express themselves, they don't feel silly. Sometimes when you play something more intellectual, they're afraid to say something wrong,' says L'Huillier. 'But nothing is wrong when you talk about your feelings.'
Indeed the show itself, which was created by Pierre Guillois, and co-written between himself, L'Huillier and Olivier Martin-Salvan, is a composite of many such personal anecdotes. When creating the first sketches for Fishbowl, the team drew upon their own experiences of awkward encounters and corridor dance parties while living in such chambres de bonnes. These attic rooms in Paris were originally built in the 20th century to house the servants of wealthy families. In more recent history, these tiny spaces have become the favoured housing of students looking to keep a roof over their heads in the notoriously expensive city.
credit: Pascal Perennec The cramped conditions and thin walls of these chambres make fertile ground for comedy, as L'Huillier can personally attest, but the show is not strictly autobiographical. The trio also looked to the comedic giants of the silent film era, such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, drawing from their physical theatrics and their play on contrasts. 'We found these stories everywhere: in movies, in the streets, in the people we loved,' she says. The character of the hoarder, for example, was loosely based upon Guillois' grandmother, who had lived through the war and subsequently couldn't bear to throw anything away. 'We wanted our three characters to be very human,' says L'Huillier. 'We chose for them to be failures. That's why they're so moving, I think. We can recognise aspects of them in ourselves and other people.'
Fishbowl's lack of dialogue also made it easier to connect with audiences abroad, which they found during their run at Toronto's Canadian Stage last month. 'We weren't sure if the audience would laugh; we were afraid that the humour was too French, but they did!' she says, with clear relief. For its Edinburgh run, the show's name will be changed from its French title Bigre (which roughly translates to an old-fashioned expletive, like 'crikey!'), and certain sketches will be cut, as they're based on idioms that an English-speaking audience may not understand. Luckily, their experience in Canada has assured them that the essential humour of their sketches will need no translation.
But when it came to staging Fishbowl back in their native country, it was important for them to challenge certain prejudices around the value of comedy on stage. In France, explains L'Huillier, most state-run theatres feel compelled to favour more 'important, intellectual' productions. And yet Fishbowl's examination of the absurd and the poignant, existing side-by-side in an otherwise mundane life, seems to have resonated with audiences and critics alike, as the show wraps up its sell-out run across France's publicly funded theatres, with a Molière — France's national theatre prize – under its belt.
'We want to say, humour is good for us. Comedy can be noble. It's important to laugh,' insists L'Huillier. How else, she asks, can we respond to life's many moments of boredom and disappointment, but also its manifold beauties? 'That's what I like about this show,' she says. 'It's about three people dealing with some very trivial and very beautiful things; the trivial and the beautiful living right beside one another. One is on the toilet, while another is dreaming of a big life.'
Winner of France’s Molière Award for Best Comedy Play 2017, Fishbowl now makes its UK premiere, bringing its farcical antics and physical comedy extravaganza to Pleasance Grand. In perfectly choreographed pandemonium, it follows the hilarious misadventures of three eccentric and lovable anti-heroes as they spectacularly…