Sam Wills arrives onstage with a big swatch of gaffer tape slapped over his mouth. Armed with various props his aptly entitled show The Boy With Tape On His Face unfolds in a hilarious whirl of mime, puppetry, and slapstick. With a repertoire of eye expressions – ranging from exasperation to amorous intent – to match each scenario, the Kiwi soon has the audience members in stitches, including the ones who have been dragged out of their seats to help him with his set-pieces.
That 32-year-old Wills can wield so much comic power without uttering a single word is testament to both his talent and imagination. The judges at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival certainly thought so; they nominated him for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
He ultimately lost out to Roisin Conaty’s show Hero, Warrior, Fireman, Liar but was still chuffed just to be selected.
“Well, I went to Edinburgh with a whole bunch of goals and that wasn’t one of them, so that was a nice little bonus!” he says.
Even more astounding is the fact that this was Wills’ first “indoor” show at Edinburgh. Before then he had attended as a street performer of freakshow circus, “putting my body through a tennis raquet and putting nails up my nose,” he says.
Wills wasn’t always a silent stand-up. He began his career in Christchurch as a prop comic.
“I would do about 30-40 tricks in the space of 15-20 minutes so it was really high-energy, ADHD entertainment.”
In 2005, Wills won New Zealand’s biggest comedy prize, the Billie T Award, for his show Dance Monkey Dance but felt ripe for change.
“I thought people would expect me to talk more and just learn more tricks, so I thought I should challenge myself and do a show that had no talking and no tricks.
The Boy With Tape … started life as a “hobby gig”. At first Wills tried to do a silent character without taping his mouth, “but physically couldn’t help myself talking … the next night I put a big hunk of tape over my mouth, and I thought, ‘I’m on to something here.’”
The tape isn’t just a muzzle, it’s also an integral part of Wills’ act, and showcases his natural inventiveness. He’s become adept at making his own props mid-show with gaffer tape. In one scene, he fashions a rose in a matter of seconds with which he woos a female audience member.
“I play with all different kind of tapes. At the moment I’m working with packaging tape to make a musical instrument – all different tapes have noises and shapes, different scrunchy things you can do with them,” he says.
Wills’ “stand-up without talking”, as he calls it, is almost cinematic in the way it keeps the audience guessing until the last moment. He even recreates moments from real films: his take on Ghost is particularly hilarious.
There’s also the high level of audience or “volunteer” participation in Wills’ show.
“I’m good at reading body language – I can normally pick the people who are up for a good time,” he says. “I never do a show to embarrass people … people always leave the stage an absolute hero.
“I have a volunteer who does a stripping routine and sometimes they really get into it,” Wills continues. “One time in Glasgow I had a guy remove the costume and then started removing his own clothing. It was wonderful but it was kind of gross at the same time … the audience was so supportive of him but didn’t want to see anything!”
» At Soho Theatre, W1D 3NE
020 7478 0100
Tube: Tottenham Court Road
– Alison Grinter