Beyond circus: Even When I Fall + Circus Abyssinia – Ethiopian Dreams

Such are the cultural riches in London that there’s scarcely time to discover everything that’s on, never mind see and review it all. So choices inevitably have to be made and mine tend to fall on the side of theatre – the likes of dance, opera and circus falling by the wayside. But it is something of a vicious circle. My rationale is that I don’t feel I have the expertise, the language, to speak about those other art forms with the same confidence that I express my opinions about theatre; but since I don’t go, I’m not building up that knowledge base, that necessary experience.

So when a serendipitous set of invites fell my way, I thought I’d spend a Sunday starting to rectify that a little, as far as circus is concerned. And the thing that properly caught my attention here was that both involved defiantly non-traditional approaches to the art-form, we’re a long way from The Greatest Showman here. First up was documentary film Even When I Fall by Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon, part of the Roundhouse’s CircusFest and a thoroughly sobering look at the circumstances that led to the founding of Circus Kathmandu, Nepal’s first and only circus. Continue reading “Beyond circus: Even When I Fall + Circus Abyssinia – Ethiopian Dreams”

Review: Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, Roundhouse

Opening this year’s CircusFest, Pirates of the Carabina’s Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine offers gentle delights at the Roundhouse

As we mark the 250th anniversary of the invention of modern circus, it is interesting to see how its presence is becoming ever more noticeable in the West End. Whether through the forward-thinking La Soirée or the more traditionally-inclined Cirque Beserk (going into the Harold Pinter later this month), the appetite for entertainment beyond theatre is clearly there.

Up in Chalk Farm though, this is not news. The Roundhouse has long championed contemporary circus through its biennial CircusFest and this year’s festival kicks off with Pirates of the Carabina’s Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine. And perhaps conscious of the need to make their mark in an ever-crowding marketplace, it is a show that relocates its derring-do with a unique energy.  Continue reading “Review: Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, Roundhouse”

Review: Cirque Beserk, Peacock

Cirque Beserk aim to combine a centuries-old tradition of the touring circus troupe with a contemporary approach to staging, and with a company of thirty-five performers from at least ten countries demonstrating over thirty circus skills without safety devices, they certainly have a good shot at it. From the cascading antics of the Timbuktu Tumblers to the oiled machismo of the Tropicana Troupe on the springboard, there’s definitely enough here to make you roll up, roll up.

In some ways, the classics remain the best. The speed and accuracy with which Toni hurls knives, axes and flaming whatnots at his twirling wife is just gobsmacking; the outrageously flexible Odka’s contortionist work has to be seen to be believed, particularly once she starts using a bow and arrow without her hands; and just nudging into the most impressive position for me, the charismatic Germaine Delbosq’s footjuggling is a marvellous thing indeed, proving without doubt that women can do it all 😉  

Continue reading “Review: Cirque Beserk, Peacock”

Review: La Soirée, Aldwych

“This isn’t a sit-back-and-fold-your-arms kind of show”

Variety is the spice of life and it’s a taste we apparently can’t get enough of, it would seem. Brett Haylock, Mark Rubinstein and Mick Perrin’s La Soirée has been around in one form or another (previously called La Clique) for well over ten years and the grandeur of the venues it has played has grown from unused casinos to Spiegeltents to finally now, when it has taken up residence in the West End itself, in a reconfigured Aldwych Theatre.

La Soirée is a scrumptious smörgåsbord of entertainment, an ever-changing line-up of acrobats and daredevils and comedians and burlesque acts and so on and so forth, who ask you to put your scepticism and reserve to one side for the evening, and just have a real good time. To this end, the bar remains open throughout and if you’re anywhere near the front, then considerable audience participation is a real possibility but roll with it and you might just have the time of your life (like Warren did tonight…!)
In some ways, it is a show to be experienced rather than described. I could say that Michele Clark is amazing with her hula hoops but that could never do justice to the way in which she seems to make them float in the air, nor the way in which she turns into a human slinky by the end. And the breathtaking acrobatic feats of the sexually charged pairing of Leon Fagbemi and Klodi Dabkiewicz or the brotherly Indian duo of Rajesh Amrale and Rajesh Rao (with Mallakhamb India!) have to be seen to be believed as they display extraordinary strength and dexterity.
The evening is at its best when it has a devilish glint in its eye – Amy G’s roller-skating flamenco dancer amusingly pushes as far as she can in finding her guapo, and Daredevil Chicken’s banana-related antics are pure genius. And when it also works in a subversive twist to its flavour, as it is the muscular frames of Fagbemi and LJ Charles that are exposed in La Serviette, a witty peekaboo act with increasingly small white towels. And when a quick-change routine goes eye-poppingly wrong, again it is the gentleman whose blushes must be spared, (if he were at all interested in sparing them!)/ 
So it’s a headrush of visually stunning, often breath-takingly audacious daredevilry, that’ll also have you laughing merrily at how far they’re willing to push people, whether themselves or the audience. And the format of a multitude of short acts means that if one particular thing isn’t particularly doing it for you, then it really isn’t long until something completely different will come along. There’s even a family-friendly version – La Petite Soirée – on Saturday afternoons and during the Christmas holidays, which promises to dial down the sauciness and I would pay serious money to see kids responding to the banana act, it would be priceless! It might just be time to roll up, roll up, once again. 
Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photos: Brinkhoff Mogenberg
Booking until 3rd February


Review: NoFit State Circus – Bianco, Winter Festival Big Top

“Here be dragons”

As any regular reader will know, I don’t tend to see much cirque. But the invitation to see NoFit State Circus’ BIANCO was one that stood out for me, for I actually went to visit the company a few years ago when they were based at the Eden Project. I got to try out a few circus skills, though I didn’t dare brave the trapeze!, and saw a sneak preview of the first part of the trilogy Time For Beauty too. It was a little far to go back for the whole show though, so I was glad of the opportunity to see them again, to see the third and final part – Here Be Dragons.
As part of the immersive nature of the production, and the connection that NoFit State seek to build with their audiences, the whole show is done in promenade. It’s surprisingly easy on the feet though, even at 2 hours, but the reality of being shepherded a few feet that way and this soon proves to be somewhat trying, especially as you’re thus constantly at the mercy of being stuck behind tall people and having your view severely compromised – it is definitely worth keeping your eyes open and your feet nimble to secure good positions at each juncture.
For the show is well worth seeing. Heavy on aerial work and acrobatics, up down and around the scaffolding structure that is reshaped after every act, the group of performers are clearly having a whale of a time. From egging each other on to go higher and higher to creating a human pulley system to the actual competition of a hula hoop-off, there’s a sense of satisfaction to their work but it isn’t one that always carries through to the audience. Despite all the moving around, there’s not really the sense of connection that came through, say, with Barbu which felt much more inclusive.
That said, not everyone will need to feel included when watching performances of this calibre. And director Firenza Guidi has a clear eye for the theatrical. The staged chaos of the opening sequence is a great introduction to the work and the visual splendour of the final snowstorm comes across as a neat nod to pantomime convention. Much as I enjoyed it, for me there was a slight tendency towards the repetitive with some of the acts and I’d’ve done away with the interval but that would leave you standing too long. But there’s no doubting how impressive the physical feats are here and that makes for a largely enjoyable evening – book now and you too could be dreaming of a BIANCO Christmas.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Tristram Kenton
Booking until 22nd January

Review: BARBU, Spiegeltent London Wonderground

“Ma-gique, ma-gique, ma-gique...”

Cirque Alfonse scored a big success with their iconic production Timber! and this summer, they’re returning to entertain audiences on London’s South Bank with their third – BARBU. They describe their show as a raucous and sexy cabaret and that pretty much hits the mark for this Québécois company as they combine circus tricks and magic tricks, beer-keg juggling and burlesque, acrobatics and audience participation (and alcohol too), the majority of which is delivered by bearded men and women (but mainly men) in their pants.

From roller-skaters pulling each other around by their beards to a man dressed as a glitterball whirling inside a Cyr wheel, the guys using one of their company as an actual skipping rope to human pyramids that seem to defy the laws of physics, the sheer amount of both skill and skills on display is a constant delight. Alain Francœur’s direction keeps things constantly moving and each segment sufficiently compact that if, say, gob-smacking trampolining or juggling ain’t your thing, it’s soon over (although the latter really should be, the scarves and the cups are just genius).
Cirque Alfonse aren’t just interested in just entertaining us with flash though (quite literally in some cases, a pair of pastie-covered breasts are soon trumped by a pair of French-Canadian tree trunks, parental guidance probably advised). André Gagné and David Simard’s electro-folk score delves deep into the folkloric musical well of Québéc with all its Celtic influences, video projections of the province’s natural beauty serve as a changing backdrop, and the range of acts reflects the company’s historical research into the origins of the circus in Montréal at the turn of the previous century.
The speed of BARBU does mean that not every segment resonates strongly – you could blink and miss the bed of nails, the mentalist and his hamster felt disjointed to me and the final audience interaction missed the mark. But the overriding sense of mischievous fun is just irresistible as hips sway, ribbons twirl and the guys try and sabotage each other’s routines with a twinkle in the eye and a cheeky tweak of the moustache. Great fun.
Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Photos: David Jensen
Booking until 25th September


Blogged: NoFit State Circus, the Eden Project and me

Roll up roll up… just the mere mention of the word ‘circus’ has to be one of the most evocative in the English language. Whether from personal experiences or from the multitude of cultural references in which the circus plays a key part – mine include trips to Blackpool Circus in infant school (the water!!), this frequently chilling Doctor Who story and of course Dumbo – there’s something undeniably persuasive about it, a sense of magical escapism that means the brain never quite discounts running away to the circus as a potential life choice 😉

But times change and so too has the circus, or at least some parts of it, as can be seen in the rise of the incredibly popular strand of contemporary circus. Companies like NoFit State and shows like La Clique and La Soirée, and Cantina (which is still running at the London Wonderground) may have left the animals behind but in doing so have focused the attention onto the often breath-taking, boundary-pushing physical endeavours of their human ensembles. So when I was invited to come and preview NoFit State Circus’ upcoming show at the Eden Project in Cornwall, it was something of a no-brainer. I’d never been to this part of the UK before, the offer to teach us some circus skills intrigued and the clips on YouTube looked frankly amazing.

NoFit State partnered with the Eden Project last year, creating the site-specific show Labyrinth which proved to be a huge success and so producers Tom Rack of NoFit and Tom Critchley of the Eden Project decided to continue that relationship for a second summer. This year’s show – Bianco – is being written and directed by Firenza Guidi and has been designed with a view to taking the show on an extensive tour after its run here in Cornwall. The full company of artistes had only just come together before our visit, but the 10 minute snippet of the show that we were privileged to witness already had a pulsing, vibrant energy and the makings of something really rather spectacular.

From flying trapezes to Chinese poles, extreme trampolining to feats of extraordinary gymnastic ability, the talent of this company is evident from the off. But the combined effect of the physicality with a throbbing soundtrack and Guidi’s acute direction, teasing out further commitment from everyone, is to create something quite dramatic, in all senses of the word. After a hilarious hula-hoop lesson from our most tolerant and talented instructor, I chatted to the Toms over cake and it was fascinating to hear them talk about one of the main strengths of NoFit State being in their ability to blur the dividing line, such as it exists, between theatre and contemporary circus to generate the kind of profound experience that one might argue stands this apart from something like the shiny but ultimately rather soulless La Clique.

So if you’re headed down towards Cornwall this summer, then I’d heartily recommend making a booking for Bianco. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it back down there for the actual show as my own summer holiday will see me decamp to France for three weeks and leave precious little time for anything else. But should the show come to London on its tour, I’ll be sure to pay a visit.

Runs from 28th July-2nd September

Review: Cantina, Priceless London Wonderground

The South Bank has long been a hub for creative and artistic endeavours of great diversity, whether Watch This Space, the free offerings in front of the National Theatre, the evolution of La Clique into La Soirée, or the comedy-centric programme in the big purple Underbelly. And now we have the newly arrived Priceless London Wonderground, a summer-long festival of cabaret, circus and sideshow centred on the rather wonderful Spielgeltent marquee. Headlining the vast array of shows and running right through til September is Cantina, a steamily bewitching mixture of vaudeville and circus.
The ambience is of old-school faded glamour, snippets of jitterbug and lindyhop intermingle with crooning troubadours and music boxes as a 1930s dressed couple take to a high-wire and all seems relatively straight-forwardly traditional. But Cantina is much more progressive the period might suggest as there’s a wittily subversive take on gender relations here that keep things utterly fresh. So where we are introduced to Henna Kaikula’s audaciously flexible broken doll routine, it is soon countered by David Carberry’s near-naked submission to Chelsea MacGuffin’s stilettoed feet all over his body.    

Indeed couples tussle throughout the 70 minute show: men square up to each other in acrobatic combat, the battle of the sexes is given a thrillingly even-handed treatment in sensuous dance. And there’s thrills to be had in solo moments, especially the breath-taking rope skills of Mozes, who also shows us the best way to use a copy of the Telegraph in one of the evening’s more revealingly risqué moments, whose raw presence electrifies the audience.

There’s no narrative to speak of, but in the jaw-dropping moments of circus skill and the wryly amusing cabaret-style humour, it is rarely missed. What we get instead is a highly atmospheric venue filled with boundless physicality and a deeply sexy mood, a company able to grab our attention and willing to toy with it, and us, in a show of great sensuality.  
Running time: 70 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £10 (I think)
Booking until 30th September

Review: The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Vaudeville

“They’re not Russian, they don’t fly and they’re not brothers”

The Flying Karamazov Brothers are four entertainers, dressed in kilts, who have moved into the Vaudeville Theatre for the summer with their cabaret show of juggling, comedy, dancing, comedy dancing and music. The troupe has impressively been going since 1973, and still has one of those original two members performing now – Paul Magid (also writer and director), developing a number of shows and expanding their numbers to enable shows to run simultaneously in different cities. Not usually a fan of juggling-based shows, I have to say my mind was completely opened to new possibilities by Gandini Juggling’s Smashed! last year which demonstrated how interesting and indeed beautiful it could be.

There are moments of thrilling juggling which are breathtaking in their scope, as the four men play with the sounds and rhythms that they create, and weave in and out of each other, exchanging batons at a whirling rate and never pausing for breath during the routines. The best of these comes towards the end with what they call jazz juggling, a free improvisational segment which sees them cutting loose and challenging each other with a more playful air of tricks and flicks that is highly engaging and fun: it was so good, it almost overshadowed the much-trailed juggle of 9 Objects of Terror that followed it at the end of the show.

There’s an awful lot besides the juggling in the show too, despite the relatively short running time, as the guys move into variety with mixed success: a ballet routine is most amusing as is the moment when they play as an ensemble using each other’s hands. But the patter that fills the gaps doesn’t really work, the shoe-horning in of topical references is too forced and simply unnecessary, they are funnier and connect more with the audience when they stick to the culture-clash jokes and encourage their participation by trying to find three objects to try and defeat their juggling champ.

And it has to be said, though the quality of the performances were generally good, the second half was marked with a number of errors as three of the juggling routines featured dropping more than once. Matters were exacerbated by it being painfully obvious in two of them: the first one in the dark with illuminated balls leaving nowhere to hide as they tumbled to the floor and the finale, involving a member of the audience standing in the midst of flaming torches being tossed around, was genuinely nail-biting as the element of danger was ramped up but again, things fell to the ground.

The warm humour that is displayed by the four men throughout the show means that the drops are by no means disastrous, but ultimately in a show that prides itself in its world-class talent, it was a little disappointing to see mistakes creeping in. And with the level of entertainment on the non-tossing side of things not really matching up to the virtuoso juggling, it was something of a mixed evening for me: if you’re willing to throw yourself into the spirit of things with the zany Karamazov Brothers though, there’s much relaxed entertainment on offer here, perfect for the family.

Running time: 100 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 10th September
Note: if you’re shy, avoid the front row!

Review: Smashed!, Watch This Space @National Theatre

“How do you like them apples?!”

Originally this was just going to be a note at the bottom of the Danton’s Death review as I saw this before going into the Olivier, but it was just so darned good that I decided to give it a review all of its own as there’s a few more shows over the weekend that you can go and catch, especially since it is totally free.

Smashed! is a new show put together by the Gandini Juggling collective especially for the Watch This Space festival and I honestly cannot recommend it enough. There are no words to describe how beautiful the sight of 9 people juggling a whole load of apples can be, but I’m going to try. It actually had the air of a dance piece, indeed the opening sequence was heavily reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, with its promenading and knowing looks on the faces of the performers. The intricacy of the routines, often involving several jugglers swopping balls was often breathtaking, the synchronisation a visual treat and the different ways in which the performers interacted was always intriguing.

My favourite sequence was probably the one which started with the two female jugglers dancing to The End of the World whilst juggling and then having to maintain their performance whilst the other eight men pestered them, stole their apples and then replaced them at random times forcing some great tricks out of the women. It was an unexpected place to see an affecting portrayal of typical behaviour but all the more effective for it.

Elsewhere, there was tons of amazing ball (or apple) skills on display, ranging from the jaw-dropping, the flick of four apples off one guy’s forearm, one each into the hands of the four people along from him (more impressive than it sounds, honest!) to the highly comic, the taking of a bite from each apple as it flew into the air with increasing rapidity. The introduction of some crockery to the stage made it clear where the title of the show fitted into the whole shebang with a most satisfying, smashing good time ending the show.

Running time: 30 minutes
Note: I’d advise not sitting too close to the front of the stage! If you’re interested, you can sign up for a 30 minute beginners’ juggling workshop (sign up by 4pm for a 5pm class) which I can highly recommend