Around, Jackson’s Lane

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By guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Short and sweet, this half hour lunchtime show feeds feisty and giggly kiddies with a banquet of characters performing a range of tricks. A bearded ring master charms a female acrobat snake out of a trunk, and two musicians run around in monkey and pyjama costumes as their underage audience scream and shout at them. Programmed for the Easter holiday, the work is a strong contender among the ever-growing popularity of children’s theatre in London. Particularly special is Jackson’s Lane support for circus, which enriches their programming and sets a precedent for accommodating circus in small theatres.

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It’s Not Yet Midnight, Roundhouse

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Compagnie XY live and work together, sharing each other’s rhythms and routines. The work they make as a collective captures this ebb and flow of human energy and emotion within a larger group rather than the individual, reflecting their chosen lifestyle. In their latest piece, an impressive twenty-two acrobats fight, flirt and fly through the after-work dusk, but It’s Not Yet Midnight… peaks too soon and winds down with the whisper of mid-week fatigue rather than the frenzied collapse following a blinding night out.

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Freak, VAULT Festival

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A thing wot I learnt from theatre: there are people in the world that have a genetic disorder which gives them super stretchy skin. Whilst this is a great/horrifying party trick, historically it meant that people with this condition could join a travelling sideshow.

Nathan Penlington could be called a freak by those inclined to use such dated, derogatory language. He has a rare genetic disorder that, in him, manifests as hypermobility and chronic pain. But in other people it can make their skin stretch excessively. Penlington’s long-running fascination with sideshows combined with his own health issues, led him on a journey to a town in Florida with a unique history. His findings in the States, his research into sideshow culture and history, and a dash of disability rights combine to make solo performance/TED Talk work-in-progress Freak.

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Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman, Soho Theatre

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From a lectern in the corner of the stage, Dr Marisa Carnesky fights the social taboo of periods. Resembling a character from a Tim Burton film, the PhD holder in menstrual rituals and synchronicity shares her collective research with a group of performance artists she assembled, the Menstruants. Sideshow/cabaret Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is a wonderfully quirky manifestation of sisterhood, womanhood and the wonders of the female body.

Every month on the new moon, Dr Carnesky and the Menstruants met on a beach in Southend to develop and performed rituals around their menstrual cycle. The Menstruants come from an array of backgrounds and sexualities, and their rituals are as unique and individual as they are. Through their performances, every woman’s personal experiences with their bodies is validated and celebrated.

The performances on show are distinctive and compelling. There is some spectacle: sword swallower MisSa Blue has a customised set of swords that suit her oesophagus shape each day of her cycle. Some of the work is more reflective and otherwordly, like Nao Nagal’s use of traditional Japanese masked performance. Molly Beth Morossa provides a creepy sideshow element with her twitchy, Victorian high tea. H Plewis performs a visceral movement piece with her menstrual jelly. Rhyannon Styles simply speaks to us directly about her experience of cycles as a trans woman. Fancy Chance, with the rest of the company, performs a phenomenal circus act as a finale, after an empowering, proud sequence of feminine reclamation. All of the acts celebrate female abilities and bodies without aggression.

In between the vulnerable, performative manifestations of female cycles, Dr Carnesky talks to the audience through an array of historical and cultural mores surrounding menstruation. She particularly focuses on myth and symbolism – death and rebirth, shedding of skin and female unity. Her tone is gentle and matter-of-fact; the the content may be revolutionary but she comes across as warm and supportive.

In a show that has the potential to come across as alienating, it is instead welcoming – no one in the audience (men included) seem uncomfortable, and the stories shared on the stage are supported from the house. Instead,this diverse, inclusive variety show is a divine honouring of the feminine mystery and a reclamation of one of the features that defines women, and a showcase of some excellent live artists.

Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman runs through 7 January.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Closer, Udderbelly at Southbank Centre

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Five performers gleefully throw themselves around the stage inside Southbank’s upside down purple cow. Displays of tumbling, trapeze and acrobatics abound, but what makes Australian company Circa’s show different from other circus isn’t their physical skill. Closer is full of unadulterated joy and celebration of human intimacy. Personality is on show as much as circus skills are, and Closer is a powerful reminder to share our emotions with those around us because it feels great to connect with others.

The ensemble of five begin with a sequence more akin to contemporary dance than circus. It suits the show’s pared back aesthetic of black costumes on a black stage that draws all focus onto their movement. Without the spectacle now common in modern circus, there are only bodies in space and their relationships with each other. It’s a refreshing change from the often vapid glitz and glam that draws attention away from the performers. Even the sections with equipment and props keep it simple: a white rope, plain wooden chairs, single coloured hoops. Every other sequence is acrobatic and balancing on each other, showcasing feats of strength and agility and how bodies can interact with each other. These numbers are by far more interesting than the solo displays of trapeze, hula hooping, hand balancing and rope work, though they are not without skill.

There is no narrative framework, and the simplicity is reminiscent of children at play. Emotions are clearly expressed facially, be they resentment, longing, or happiness. They’re a joy to watch, even if the plot they act out is a secret looked in their own minds as they hug, cuddle and throw themselves into each other’s arms. Obviously circus performers are often in contact with each other’s bodies, but the usual lack of expression doesn’t facilitate character relationships. Here, though there are no explicit characters, the ever-changing relationships between the performers are always clear.

The promised intimacy was plentiful between the performers, but less so with the audience. Udderbelly isn’t a small venue by any means, so even though the front row might feel a thrill from the performers being so close, the back row’s experience is more diluted. There is some audience participation but in this large, nearly full venue it still doesn’t stretch to the “intimacy” label.

Closer is not typical contemporary circus, and it’s all the better for it. Apart from the corporate sponsor’s logo emblazoned across the backdrop before the start, Circa’s work avoids the pitfalls of the form; instead it looks at the basics of human interaction through movement and circus. The performers’ bodies moving through space and stretching themselves to physical limits demonstrates what we do for the people we love without any sequins or glitter.

Closer runs through 12 June.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

These Books Are Made For Walking, Jackson’s Lane

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Fabrice Dominici is a solitary librarian who takes great pleasure from the books he tenderly looks after. Gently stroking them, he flips to his favourite passages before giving them a sniff and balancing them on shelves made out of ladders. When a pile of books at the top comes to life, revealing a woman who has no intention of leaving and has a musician friend join her, the librarian tries everything to drive off these nonchalant interlopers. As his attempts continue to fail, this simple storyline of These Books Are Made for Walking starts to wander until it completely loses its way at an anti-climactic ending. Though visually dynamic and a nice premise for its aged 6+ target audience, the lack of distinct characterisation and a simple narrative arc is a disappointment to all ages.

Dominici’s nameless librarian draws on clowning to create a somewhat hapless but caring character who endears himself to the audience with his Wile E. Coyote determination. There are regular laughs, and his performance finds a lovely midpoint between over-exaggerated and underplayed. The other two performers lack personality, and it is never made clear what they want other than to hang out and make music on top of the rickety shelves. A love song gives away that they are a couple, but their relationship has no real bearing on the story.

Whilst the librarian’s attempts to get rid of his uninvited guests are entertaining and draw to a close before they become stale and repetitive, his sudden change of heart is inexplicable. He dashes around the stage with ropes and an audience volunteer to set up for the woman’s slack rope routine; after poking her musician friend in the bum with gardening sheers it simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a strange transition, but not as abrupt and unsatisfying as the show’s conclusion.

The set design, presumably by the three devising artists that also perform, is the highlight These Books Are Made for Walking. It’s instability naturally creates tension, though I would not want to be the person that had to risk assess the freestanding structure with performers clambering along the top. Books create a wonderful aesthetic, though watching them tumble to floor and then be trodden on cause several tiny heartbreaks. Christopher McGhee’s lighting works with the set well to create gentle shadows and focus points, though a moment of bright orange rays made the subjects hard to see as they were too close to the source to be lit evenly.

This second production from Bikes & Rabbits shows a promising use of narration in physical and visual theatre with additional elements of circus, but the spectacle’s temptation proves too much and is not properly integrated into the piece’s structure. It’s a lovely idea that doesn’t manage to follow through to a satisfying, clear conclusion.

These Books Are Made For Walking tours until 2 April at various venues.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.