I hadn’t known quite what to expect from this half-hour promenade show. It’s listed as a comedy, is clearly themed on vacuum flasks – and according to the blurb on the Brighton Fringe website, involves “twelve suitcases [which] unfold to reveal numerous astonishing displays”. Hmm. That’s not quite what actually happens.
Instead, we’re led to the back of Komedia – the bit where they put the rubbish out – and shown a series of battered Thermos flasks, perched on top of the wheelie bins. The fact that this is deeply unimpressive is, of course, the whole point, but compared to what could be done with the concept it’s still a bit of a let-down. There’s no attempt to explain why the “museum” is occupying this shabby corner of the building, and it isn’t heightened or wacky enough to really count as a joke.
Things do get more engaging later on, when we’re led into a very strange place – a bizarre surprise which I won’t spoil – to witness a couple of lo-fi “interactive displays”. Later still there’s a slide show, which at least includes a picture of two of the promised suitcases, standing beside a bus stop in Edinburgh.
We’re accompanied all the time by the Curator – a downbeat and disheartened character – who’s apparently dedicated his life to collecting Thermos flasks, but is notably unenthusiastic about describing them. Many of the Curator’s flask-themed stories are evident fiction, and there is a gentle humour to his ramblings. But he tries very hard to conceal it.
The trouble is that, when you make yourself out to be a dull and dislikeable character, you risk creating a dull and dislikeable show. There’s no irony or knowingness to the portrayal, no conspiratorial acknowledgement that we’re sharing a big joke. The whole thing feels just a little bit too real.
And compounding that effect, we are strictly forbidden to speak. Ditch any thoughts of improvisation, or of witty riffing with the audience; any breaches of the code of silence are met with a stern “no talking in the museum”. Subconsciously, I found myself afraid to laugh or even to smile, lest my levity attract the same degree of opprobrium.
Perhaps it’s not supposed to be funny. Perhaps it’s performance art. Or perhaps it’s an elaborate meta-joke, where the Curator enjoys watching his audience struggle to make some sense of it all. And if it’s that last thing, then I tip my hat – because he’s thoroughly bamboozled me.
Googling it afterwards, I’ve discovered that the Thermos Museum started life as a kind of art installation – a parody of serious galleries, and the kind of objects they display. Presented like that, as something I could poke around and linger over and laugh about with friends, I could see it being rather wonderful. But in its current form, I’m sorry, no.