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Tango: Tock of the Town

I recognised something familiar about the “Tick Tock” scene in Marianne Elliott's Company, dredging up from my memory visions of Eastern European experimental animation from the Eighties and a Nineties washing machine advert. What could it all mean? I beg your indulgence…

Missing from the early previews, the often-cut “Tick Tock” finally made its way into Marianne Elliott's gender-switched production of Company in plenty of time for the opening night. What began in the original Broadway production as a dance number for Kathy – in which she writhes around to convey the bump and grind of love-making – usually fails to make it into the show, but Marianne Elliot had other ideas.

No surprise it was a delayed start, given the complexity of the number as reimagined by Elliott and her team. In a post-coital nightmare, Bobbie sees the monotony of monogamy unfolding in front of her – endless Groundhog days picking up her husband’s smelly socks, pregnancy-induced back ache, crying babies, and wet toilet floors (the seat never put down, of course).

This scene unfolded with militaristic precision, accompanied by the relentless tick-tock of the wood block, and beautifully choreographed with the help of stage illusionist Chris Fisher (of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fame). How better to emphasis the female biological clock? But it felt familiar, just in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then it dawned on me – Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyński!

To be fair, I’m only writing this to show off that I recognised the video that surely inspired the staging – a fact I shared with (and had confirmed by) MD Joel Fram after the Society’s exclusive Q&A. So, please indulge me as a fan of obscure Eastern Europe animation.

Tango is an avante garde short film by the first ever Polish Oscar winner, Zbigniew Rybczyński, and I urge you to watch it. This bonkers, eight-minute, Oscar-winning piece sees a series of actors, filmed separately then looped over the top of each other, enter a room, perform an activity, then leave. It sounds simple but each actor enters one at a time, and by the middle of the piece – accompanied by a dreary tango from Polish composer Janusz Hajdun (1935–2008) – there are, incredibly, 36 people in the room all doing their thing. They’re changing a lightbulb, doing handstands, breast-feeding a baby and even having sex, yet at no point do they collide or interact.

You may not have seen this odd short, but there’s more chance that you’ve seen the series of TV adverts that it inspired: the “On and On and Ariston” commercials from 1991 to c.1994. In this inventive homage to Tango, the creatives at London ad agency Gold Greenless Trott showed the durability of the Ariston range of kitchen appliances by having them used again and again by an enormous family who, again, never collide or interact.

Fifteen years later, the concept has returned, this time on the Gielgud stage. After Bobbie falls asleep in the arms of airheaded air steward Andy (or is it Randy?!) she has a nightmare induced by the recent chats she's been having with her married friends. In it, her life stretches out before her in an endlessly repeating routine, with ever more depressing things layering themselves in: Andy never lifts the toilet seat and always pees on the floor; dirty gym socks need picking up; the boyfriend's always rushing out, with a patronising pat on Bobbie's arse; the sciatic nerve pings as she gets fat with pregnancy; the baby needs fed; and so on and so on. It's a work of genius.

(You could argue that Michel Gondry was also inspired by Tango when making his pop video for Kylie Minogue’s “Come in to My World” in 2002) – admittedly a lot less depressing than "Tick Tock"!)


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