The surprise is not that the Boy with the Tape on his Face can talk. By the time we meet backstage after he has wowed the audience with his entirely silent show at the Latitude festival, I have sussed out that the New Zealand performer is capable of normal speech. It's only his stage character who is wordless.
No, the surprise is that when he removes the large strip of black tape from across his mouth and becomes plain old Sam Wills again, I realise he has a ring through his bottom lip.
It's a surprise because the persona he presents on stage – the one that earned him an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination for best newcomer last year – is a figure of wide-eyed innocence. There is something about his inability to speak that makes him seem vulnerable, a man-child who relies on the audience's goodwill to get him through his very funny show. It's not a look that squares with the 32-year-old's offstage body piercings and tattoos.
"When you've got tape on your mouth, you are the lowest status," he says to explain the secret of the character's appeal. "Essentially it's clowning. Instead of a red nose, it’s just dropped down to your mouth. He comes out, completely out of place and says, 'I need you to help me.'"
The way he looks when he is not in the guise of the Boy with the Tape on his Face tells you about his background in circus and street theatre. He started out as a teenager wanting to be a juggler, moved on to circus school for two years and became a part-time acrobat and teacher of juggling. He got interested in circus sideshows and developed an act heavily influenced by the shock and awe of the Jim Rose Circus, power drills and all. He did that for eight years, won all the awards he could in New Zealand and decided it was time for a change of direction.
"I thought, 'What do I do now?' Everybody expects me to talk – because I talked a hell of a lot in that show – and to do tricks, so I'll do a show that has not a single trick in it and I won't say a word."
Thus the Boy with the Tape on his Face was born, developing out of a five-minute routine he began more or less as a hobby and gradually building up to become the main event. He still does his circus act and street theatre from time to time, but it is the Boy with Tape on his Face that has taken off.
It is, I suggest, an act that harks back to silent movie clowns such as Buster Keaton. This is the right thing to say. "I'm glad you said Buster Keaton because I'm a big Keaton fan," he says, admitting also to being a keen student of the Muppets and Wile E Coyote. "People always say I must love Chaplin, but no, Chaplin played low status but he was always too cool and you knew he was always going to get the girl. He was too arrogant for my liking. I really love the Buster Keaton stuff, he's way more physical and is a big influence."
For all the old-school innocence of the Boy with the Tape on his Face, however, it is fascinating to see just how much power that strip of black tape holds over a modern audience. In the comedy tent at Latitude, he performs to a large crowd who have spent the afternoon watching linguistically playful acts such as Mark Watson and Dylan Moran and are by no means ready for a word-free show. Yet where other performers hold us with their miked-up noisiness, Wills uses the opposite technique, making us pay attention because we are not being shouted at. "Even in comedy clubs I do enjoy those first two minutes of people going, 'What's going on?'" he says.
Curiously, it gives the tape a potency, so much so that when he invites a woman from the audience to kiss him on the "lips" it feels like a violation, a taboo being broken. "It’s amazing," he says. "The other thing is it makes me safer for the audience. With the character, I've found people won't say no to getting up. They're occasionally a wee bit reluctant, but they know that I'm not going to verbally abuse them."
As a performer, Wills has the precision and authority of an experienced street artist. He knows how to get the audience to do what he wants, but rather than exploit his onstage "volunteers", he empowers them. Sometimes he even leaves the stage to let them have the laughs for themselves. "I've seen so many people do audience participation badly," he says. "Without the audience on stage, I'm stuffed. I need them. I want every person to leave the stage feeling they are the heroes of the show."
His return to Edinburgh this year will be a lap of honour not least because it was while busking in Edinburgh in 2007 that he met his wife, the cabaret singer Lili La Scala, who is performing at Assembly. "First kiss in Hunter Square," he says. "We have our reunion every time we go up for the festival."
He is also giving audiences a chance to catch up with the show that caused such a sensation in 2010. The Boy with the Tape on his Face is no one-hit wonder, however, and he is considering the possibility of showcasing an all-new routine at a one-off gig while he is in Edinburgh. "It's the same premise," he says, describing a routine in which Darth Vader has a horse race, an idea inspired by his creation of a lightsaber out of a tape measure. "I want people to remember they are still kids. People don't play any more and take things way too seriously. In the whole show, there's no message, there's no nothing, it’s just a series of small stupid sketches. I really like that: it's nice to play occasionally."
The Boy with the Tape on his Face, Pleasance Courtyard, 15–28 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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