Men in Coats: Making the audience laugh without saying a single word

LONDON – Can a bulky, long raincoat become a symbol of comedy? Can it become a treasure box of jokes hiding more treasures made of cheap materials? Well, it turns out that it can. Two raincoats are the working tools used by Men In Coats, namely Mick Dow and Maddy Sparham, one of Britain’s most popular comedy acts. In the last few years, the duo has been traveling the world offering great laughs – without uttering a single word. An unexpected change in their touring plans – they were originally scheduled to appear in Australia but had to postpone their shows there – gave Londoners yet another chance to enjoy this great act. A group of Greek journalists also traveled to London to see the show, a few days before Men in Coats visit Athens, for a number of scheduled performances at the city’s Coronet Theater (Friday – February 29). They appear onstage through a black curtain and soon begin unfolding the art of mimicry. Animal masks, a few balls, two newspapers and what seems like tons of orange pips become magic tools in their hands. Besides these low-budget, straightforward props, it is their extraordinary dexterity which enables them to construct such an enjoyable show. One of the key elements of the performance is the use of videos and music, which accompany every movement the duo makes on stage. They use familiar music, with a Perez Prado hit song at the core, while alternating favorites include theme songs from films such as «Mission Impossible,» «Jaws,» «Superman,» «2001: A Space Odyssey,» and the much-loved «E.T.» Throughout the show, the duo’s readiness and well-rehearsed tricks, combined with the circus code of communication, do not, even momentarily, betray any trace of fatigue; the hard exercise only becomes evident at the show’s finale, when the audience gets a glimpse of their clothes – drenched in sweat. Featuring an upbeat mood, sensational speed and serious discipline together with synchronized movements and sounds, they leave audiences spellbound with their visual tricks. «This is a children’s show for grownups,» said Mick Dow to the Greek delegation after the performance, stressing that when he was little he didn’t always understand all of the Monty Python jokes. A former street comedian, thin and fair-haired Dow is the complete opposite of the short, somewhat chubby, Sparham. What do the artists take from the circus tradition? Besides the traditional clown, there’s also the figure of the white clown, the latter usually being in command. «We both perform a number of jokes, but, ultimately, people look at us differently,» said the tall 40-year-old, who admits that, on stage, his partner invariably is the more popular one. So far, Men in Coats have been dubbed as the funniest silent comedy duo of the 21st century. How did they get there? Dow began his career on the street with pedestrians for an audience, while attending any drama class he came across in London. He also began traveling abroad, performing on the streets of several European countries, until, one day, back in the British capital, he met Sparham. They formed Men in Coats and proceeded to follow the road to success, which first came when they won the 2001 Hackney Empire award. The Independent newspaper described the production as a blender mixing various elements stemming from popular films, great musical hits, and the world of sport together with funny, everyday habits. «In Britain, people are quite cynical when it comes to comedy,» said Dow. «They have seen so much of it, and therefore, in order to win them over, you must do exactly the opposite of what they expect.» That is probably why, in their production, they overturn stereotypes, going as far as revealing some of their tricks to their audience. Greece has no tradition when it comes to this kind of theater. Yet despite this, it is refreshing to see how local audiences are increasingly open to such novel performances. «This is a middle- to higher-education audience, thirsty to experience new things which go beyond the daily routine; the kind of shows that they usually see abroad,» said Takis Georgas, who together with his brother Giorgos brought the so-called «Family Theater» to the Greek market. The brothers are known for the Half Note Jazz Club, the landmark Athenian venue that brings to the Mets area artists of the caliber of Archie Shepp. They were also the masterminds behind the performances of the new circus, as well as a three-month tribute (together with G. Mourelatos) to blacklight theater. Also thanks to their efforts, local audiences enjoyed Vienna’s Marionettentheater Schloss Schoenbrunn, in a puppet performance of Mozart’s «Magic Flute.» «We pay a lot of attention in order to bring productions which have received rave reviews abroad. Of course, that is not enough. We constantly travel to a number of festivals, going from Edinburgh to Spain and London,» says Georgas. When it comes to big productions (where they collaborate with M. Adam) the siblings are well known for taking risks. In the end, however, attendance seems to be generated through a word-of-mouth process, even though the productions are usually hard to define: Combining all art forms, they range from music to dance, theater and the circus. The brothers discovered Men in Coats two years ago in Edinburgh. It took them two years to book the act for the upcoming performances. «The job is done by the artists,» says Georgas. «But the challenge belongs to the intermediary. He has to persuade others that what he’s introducing is worthwhile.»