En Avant, Marche!

I’ve never been in a band. Not even when I was a kid. All those young cellists and violinists might have felt crippled by their uncool musical hobby, but I find the whole idea of playing in an orchestra or marching band absolutely fascinating. You’re making music! Together! And it sounds brilliant. Good for you.

En Avant, Marche! celebrates the togetherness of bands. This wacky, lopsided show centres around the hi-jinks of a marching band and the visceral purpose of music itself, the ultimate answer to life’s absurdities.

Diagnosed with terminal cancer of the mouth, a trombonist (Wim Opbrouck) struggles to confront his impending death and the premature loss of his music, cruelly prevented by his illness from playing. What follows is a defiant, joyful funereal procession, a spirited but futile rebellion against life’s ultimate injustice.

Set entirely in a rehearsal room, En Avant, Marche! is a paean to performing, an ode to the camaraderie of making music together. Instruments are tossed around the stage, chairs clatter this way and that, ramshackle and impromptu solos flourish and fade. With so little dialogue, the characters are left to communicate through their music, exaggerated gestures and lewd multilingual monologues. It’s not always clear what’s happening.

Yet for such a rambunctious show, En Avant, Marche! feels oddly stifled. A cast of undeniable talent and range come across as misshapen and disconnected. Wim Opbrouck’s sick trombonist bosses the stage, determined to have one final swan-song before his death. But where his impending doom should invoke some sense of sympathy and loss amongst his fellow bandmates, they seem distant and stiff. Rather than elaborating the togetherness of making music, Opbrouck’s muted relationship with the band makes him seem isolated and alone, a virtuoso rather than a loved teammate. There’s an emotional flatness which all but silences the play’s ambitions.

At times it feels like you’re watching the playful but messy rehearsals to a promising but as-yet unfinished play. Prolonged silence is used liberally, amplifying the power of the intermittent music, but too often the audience is left staring, perplexed, as Opbrouck insistently mimes his fart jokes. One awkward passage sees him repeatedly demand to know whether one of his bandmates pleasures herself ‘through the back door’ once she’s been satisfied in the front. You could justify it as defiance in the face of death, the indomitable human spirit determined to express itself even when faced with its own oblivion, but as with much of the toilet humour offered here it falls flat, despite the nervous tittering of the audience.

And ‘tittering’ is the key word. Despite the constant attempts to raise smiles, there are no real belly laughs to be had, just occasional bemused smiles and isolated chuckles. It’s simply too scattered, with no semblance of plot or character development. Riotous dancing and outpourings of libidinous energy keep things pacy, but I struggled to retain my interest without any plot to get into.

Opbrouck’s uninhibited ramblings are diverting, but without any narrative to hang on to they quickly lose their thrust. The few gems in the script are largely adrift from the action. “When you’re up to your neck in shit” Opbrouck declares philosophically, “even a fart is a fresh wind”. A tight, well-drilled band (The Heroes Band, who perform admirably throughout) are often left isolated in a wayward and chaotic whirlwind of nonsense. When it works, it’s life-affirming; but during the long spells of confusion, it drags.

There’s much to enjoy here – Hendrick Lebon’s daredevil dancing is utterly mesmerising – but ultimately En Avant, Marche! demands too much of the audience. For all the multilingual jokes, often spanning three or four languages before the punchline is delivered, for all the well-choreographed set-pieces, for all the well-drilled energy of female leads Chris Thys and Griet Debacker, this is a directionless, messy show. A shorter running time (approx. one hour forty minutes, with no interval) and a bit more logic would help. The consummation of a courtship via a trombone-fucking, mid-way through the performance, smacks of an over-reliance on symbolism – and the absence of a strong editor.

True, En Avant, Marche! does make being in a band look fun. But it doesn’t make much sense.

En Avant, Marche! ran in Sadler’s Wells 16-17 June
LIFT 2016 runs until 2nd July

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