Bianco, Southbank Centre

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By guest critic Rebecca Nice @rebeccajsnice

NoFit State Circus takes London by storm with a big show in a big top with grand ideas and huge audiences. A must-see on the London tourist and art scene, the slightly ominous looking grey tent is nestled into a winter wonderland of overpriced bars with a ticket price to match but the raucous, everyone-welcome, ‘roll up roll up’ nature of circus emanates from the tent in boundless quantities. Programmed by the Southbank Centre in a key Christmas location, Bianco will undoubtedly reach new audiences – which brings a certain responsibility to the oeuvre. The show not only introduces circus to new and well-seasoned theatregoers, but it sits within a concentration of productions in Southbank’s multiple venues that all want to be the cream of the crop. Based on a series of short acts that each display a specific circus skill, Bianco is accessibly fast paced but disappointingly repetitive in its lack of dramaturgy.

The main attraction of Bianco is a set made of scaffold ladders and truss that are separated, wheeled about and reset between acts. Audiences can move at their will, see things close up, from behind or directly underneath. The crew happily holler ‘mind ya backs’ as they restage and point you in new directions. This makes for constantly changing viewpoints; you always have the best seat in the house as you watch from wherever you want to be. Four towers form a central square area where truss cross bars support trapeze acts and tightrope walkers accompanied by live music. The greater sense of agency makes for a work that is almost promenade and immersive in terms of the sensory landscape. This culminates in a final snow scene where glowing white (foam) snowflakes descend upon our shoulders.

The original music ranges from folk to lyrical, acapella to rock and pop, as singer-musicians Andy Moore, Annette Loose, Doug Kemp and Matt Collins swap microphone for guitars, saxophone to accordion and double bass to drums. The strong musical score sets the tone and atmosphere for each piece and holds the work together during down moments where scenery is being set.

No Fit State travels and lives together, erecting and dismantling the big top and their lives to pack them away for the next place. This traditional circus lifestyle is evident in the precision, communication and identity of the cast and this connection feeds through into performance both in terms of the mechanics of the show and the performative camaraderie between characters.

Artistic Director Tom Rack and Director Firenza Guidi work here with a cast of seventeen, each with their own act, and it is the stringing of these together like a never-ending list of circus skills that is a downfall for the work. Bianco is long and relentless with one person after another selling their wares. Any loose plot or theme to mesh these phrases together are lost and the sheer volume of content begins to hinder the success of the piece as each new act blurs into another and recalling previous ones becomes impossible.

Out of a whopping number of acts (over eighteen), from solos to full ensembles, few stand out in either creating striking visual compositions or containing themes and characters that allow the circus skills to be fully shown off. The female juggling solo may not throw the highest club or make the most complex siteswaps but the throws and catches between the legs, behind the body and into the audience make a vivacious, flirty and clumsy character fully realised and incredibly funny, firmly rooted in her choreography and clowning. The sheer volume of this company in numbers of performers and size of the performance space provides tableaus not seen before. Five ropes in line, each with an individual aerial performer who turn and ascend in unison are a feast for the eyes. The entire cast emerging from the dark, lit by flaming torches or a man spinning inside his cyr wheel flanked by four figures dangling from aerial hoops make for striking compositions. A solo female performer hangs upside down from a rope with her legs bent and toes facing the ceiling. As the loose end of the rope drapes on top of her feet in a perfect curve, she lets herself slowly down as if magically walking upside down along this arc. Gems like this unexpected delicacy in a fresh take on an old trick appear sporadically in Bianco, but are in danger of being lost with the acts being so short and so many. Hula hoops are spun and aerial hoops rotate, performers swing from swags of loose hanging rope or shimmy along a tightrope. Jugglers swing on a trapeze, two aerial silks support solo and duet. A trampoline is rolled out, there is a handstand act and a contortionist with a wine glass balancing act. Box frames spin on high with strings of beads creating sparkling halos and another trapeze act appears, this time with a dress embellished with fluorescent lights. Many acts like these are cut short before they reach their true potential.

I delight in the seaside swim scene with up to nine performers diving from the heights of the big top onto a central trampoline. Dressed in old fashioned striped bathing suits with arm bands or goggles, this scene is visually wonderful but could be stronger if the choreography and swimming motifs were tighter and crisper. Compositions of performers diving one after the other can be more tightly woven into mini sketches. What if someone wearing a shark fin dived in, or someone belly-flopped and bounced everyone out of the sea? What if someone was scared of the water and got stuck on the high hanging rubber ring? Scenes like these don’t quite reach a climax in humour and pacing of skills.

After two hours and twenty minutes of high energy, constant tricks and emotive portraits of people laughing, shouting, twisting and turning on high, both audience and cast are exhausted and elated. A sinuous male aerial act returns to close the show on a rope as his curly locks and chiaroscuro muscles form a Christ-like visage. The lyrical piece is an unapologetic show of human beauty as the Vitruvian man soars in circular flight as artificial snow falls from the darkness. It is this image that leaves an imprint in my mind, of hundreds of tiny people looking up to the dark depths of the tent top, dancing in the snow.

Bianco runs through 22 January.

Tickets arranged by Theatre Bloggers.

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