It won a Molière award in its native France – although a Jacques Tati award might have been more appropriate. Fishbowl is a wordless comedy about three neighbours living at the top of a Parisian apartment block. We see their cramped quarters and the rooftop overhead. We watch as they defend their independence from one another then abandon it, fall in love, party, piss each other off and steal each other’s biscuits. Laura Léonard’s set is a box of tricks and the three performers rival it with unexpected dexterity.
For most of its 75 minutes, you don’t feel you’re watching a story. It’s more like a montage of domestic incidents as this trio lead their cheek-by-jowl lives. One tenant spills bleach into her goldfish bowl, triggering a chaotic chain reaction across the three flats; there’s the day she goes sunbathing on the roof, casting her birdwatching neighbour as a peeping Tom; and the night of the communal knees-up, with comedy dancing in the corridor and love rivalry punctuated by frequent visits to the shared loo.
The pleasure in Pierre Guillois’s production is in large part about special effects and comic choreography, as wigs are whipped away by the wind, burst pipes extinguish pan fires on the other side of the room, and – nice running joke, this – a hi-tech toilet is activated (intentionally or otherwise) by handclap. The performances are endearing, too, although harder to read if you’re not in the front rows of the vast Pleasance Grand.
It’s only latterly that anything resembling a plot – or point – takes shape, as one among the trio bursts the bubble, breaking free to a life elsewhere. Retroactively, the show is revealed as a ships-passing moment in these people’s lives; the time when they were everything to one another without realising it – or that it would end. In that light, the penultimate scene comes as a surprise, before raising the stakes and delivering a satisfying finale. The last scene is unnecessary, adding little to this timeless silent comedy about the farce and forced intimacies of crowded urban living.