It is an image familiar to most people - an anonymous figure in a black bowler hat gazes vacantly through an open window at a serenely blue sky dotted with thick white clouds. In his one-man hymn to the work of Rene Magritte, Memoire De La Nuit, playing at the ICA as part of the London International Mime Festival, Phillip Boe is able to gracefully conjure not only this famous icon but an entire Magritte-inspired universe, in all its surreal and melancholy lyricism.
Boe uses this haunting, beautiful landscape to tell a tantalisingly bizarre detective story; a young girl has gone missing in a wood and Boe’s unnamed protagonist is on the case. In some parts dancing, in others simply moving to his own staccato rhythm, Boe begins to search for clues, growing in the process almost as confused as the dazzled audience.
Starting with just a window frame and a chest of drawers covered in dustsheets, Boe subtly builds Magritte’s striking, familiar images through his ingenious and seamlessly performed slight of hand; an egg, a glass, even a telephone, appear unremarked in Boe’s hand from out of the ether. However, Unlike the ego-maniacal theatrics of David Blaine or even Paul Daniels, Boe’s clever little tricks are truly magical; suggesting not the presence of a remarkable person in an ordinary world, but an entirely ordinary person in a remarkable alternative reality. Through these understated little illusions Boe remains truly faithful to Magritte’s comically surreal paintings, creating a universe at once very mundane and utterly bewildering.
Yet if Boe is gloriously successful in transporting his audience to another world, his reasons for taking them there remain frustratingly unfulfilling. Boe seems to want to construct his noir-ish detective story in a similar manner to Paul Auster’s wonderful New York Trilogy, tantalising the audience with the possibility of a logical conclusion that will set the world to rights before skipping off again into the impossible. Yet Boe’s confusing tale is never engaging enough to truly interest; its various plot twists feel only like a rather superficial excuse for the performer to craft his undoubtedly stunning environment.
Such an impressive performance deserves a narrative of equal strength. I’m convinced, however, that with a little more work this talented performer is capable of delivering just that.