Described as "a love story about a body and its elusive voice, separated by social anxiety", Cat Got My Tongue is a departure from the other plays from Fishhouse Theatre I’ve seen in Buxton. Featuring clowning and mime, it’s a brave choice, and its short running time has caused some consternation. But it’s a fascinating piece – and properly Fringe.
Kirsty Mealing opens the show seated at a table, with sound effects suggesting a busy restaurant. She is a picture of anxiety; every time she builds herself up to join in the conversation, the noise level rises and she shrinks back from speech. Eventually she creeps under the table, only to emerge dressed in full Charlie Chaplin-esque costume, complete with over-sized shoes on the wrong feet.
The performance is accurately described as a love story. Mealing gradually tries to gain control of her body through some very funny clowning, and when she feels she can trust it, moves on to try the same with her elusive voice – cleverly represented by a mic stand. There are some lovely moments using props, particularly a cane, and then dancing.
I’m not sure the interaction with the audience quite works. It is hard to understand what we are meant to contribute; if it’s to make the point that speech can be so easy for us yet so difficult for others, then somehow that needs to be communicated a little more clearly.
But Mealing has the most wonderfully expressive features. Her style is perfect for small-scale performance like this; the image of her doleful face and wide-open eyes is one of the saddest things I’ve seen all Fringe, while the use of her breath to convey emotion – and the ebb and flow of confidence – is lovely. She is such a watchable performer, it is almost impossible to take your eyes off her.
The main issue with this performance is its length: it’s not even half an hour, while the programme clearly states that they are featuring “three 60-minute plays each day”. It has certainly caused disquiet for those who feel they have paid for a "full" show, and particularly for those that have seen other Fishhouse works and have an expectation of a certain kind of theatre. Cat Got My Tongue is very different, and perhaps it needs a different marketing strategy – maybe as a pay-what-you-want option, or as a companion piece for a longer work.
That said, the piece is the right length for what it is, and it is intriguing and touching – lingering longer in the memory than other, more immediately accessible pieces. Kirsty Mealing is a fascinating performer, of whom I’d like to see more.