Catch Me, Underbelly Southbank

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

The Underbelly Festival Southbank is like a mini Edinburgh Festival where visitors cocoon between pop up bars, fake grass, fairy lights and giant flowerpots have a sense of exclusivity, as they wonder through to enjoy the bars as much as the shows. This vibe will stay all summer and I will no doubt be returning to sip Pimm’s in the sun whether I have show tickets or not. But having seen both currently billed shows twice now, in Edinburgh and London, their quality, popularity and longevity cannot be argued.

Originally from Quebec, Flip FabriQue deliver Attrape Moi; meaning Catch Me; in London as part of an international tour to Tenerife, Edinburgh, the USA and Quebec Canada. For seventy-five minutes, performers Christophe Hamel, Bruno Gagnon, Hugo Ouellet Côté, Jérémie Arsenault, Camila Comin and Yann Leblanc, showcase a range of skills that are, (if a little tenuously at times), threaded together by a loose theme of travelling with friends.

With a set consisting of a wall with three square holes mimicking a house and windows, the depth of the performance space is narrowed and elongated by a fixed vertical scaffold pole. There are three levels: floor, window, roof top and everywhere that the performers fly between. The narrow space combined with the intimacy of the raked seating inside the giant purple cow highlight the little jokes and interactions between performers and audience members which were either lost altogether or felt crass in the huge venue of The Assembly at Edinburgh 2016. Games and jokes such as an ice-lolly eating competition that a chap in the front row contributes a grand effort to set a playful tone but eradicating the childlike voices would improve these sections.

After an unnecessary introduction, five boys and one girl balance on each other’s heads or throw each other into the air to spin and somersault like leaves in a hurricane. After a short juggling and beatbox section, we move on to a diabolo duet. Each diabolo is released into the air, caught and manipulated by string, which becomes interesting when snatching and catching add sharp and staccato dynamics to a circular and undulating pathway and tempo. The musicality and garden chair choreography of a chorus of onlookers in the rest of the ensemble frame this duet well which changes at just the right points to keep you glued to their every move. Eventually juggling four diablos between two strings higher and higher, the control and intricacy of the pathways command attention and delight.

A humble aerial section set to Cinematic Orchestra uses a movement vocabulary that takes the aerialist to the low levels, swooping over the heads of the others as they pour over photographs, sitting in and out of the group on the floor. His relationship with the grounded performers adds a strong alternative to typical aerial choreography. This section is emotive and on the whole, a constant dynamic is maintained, using strength and restraint to prevent interrupting the routine with sudden snaps or jolts in movement.

Acts with a single large ring holding one or two performers as they constantly rotate inside their cyr wheel and Camila Comin in an aerial hoop also appear. As the group don Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses, six exercise balls become new members of the ensemble as they bounce through windows and from floors, weaving between bodies. They are juggled, piled into human pyramids and carefully lined up to form the perfect cushioning for a dive bombing body to hurl across while we all sway to Copacabana. A return to juggling in a richer scene with a guitar solo sees choreography with the balls at a lower level close to the body. Catching the balls with a downwards push or through the legs embellishes the tricks with surprising rhythms and a greater sense of risk. The sleep over scene begins as people fly head first into sleeping bags.

As night time comes, figures magically appear balancing on a head or shoulders of a partner as a sensitive chorus of torch holders both light and shroud each tableaux in darkness. This comes just as I am beginning to tire, the intriguing nocturnal jaunt could replace earlier movement fillers before the show risks going on for too long.

I wait in anticipation for the grand finale, which sees a trampoline rolled onstage. Catch Me draws to a close in a precise and elegantly poised routine of fall and rebound. The team walks walls, fly into windows and float onto the roof. The composition of falling and floating bodies is relentless and methodical, creating an undulating, smooth dynamic without undermining the risk and surprise in each backwards dive and rebound that goes one step further than the other. The precision of the fall, and acute timing make this cosmos of bodies appear as if they are balls being juggled themselves. They bounce to a pole and beyond the ceiling truss, spinning, rolling, flipping and posing in the air, landing in handstands only to fall back down again just as a space is cleared.

Catch Me works best when it isn’t taking itself too seriously. The odd filler section, choreographed to tell a story does not always work and slows the pace by the nature of its content. Every five minutes I am thrilled by a new trick, taken to its extreme with greater and greater risk which dulls the senses to some of the partner work, acro-balance, and physical theatre. Cutting these sections would make a tight ship of sixty minutes of pure thrill, leaving me little time to get my critical nose in. Having said this, the performers only have to pick up a ball to get gasps out of tonight’s audience who love every minute of it.

Flip FabriQue pack in an array of circus skills into one show that is accessible, silly and fast paced. It is the perfect opener for Underbelly’s summer festival on the Southbank by introducing circus in a clear and careful structure. Those who enjoy this show should make Head First Acrobat’s Elixir their next choice who deliver their clowning and narrative with a little more silliness and sexiness added to the mix.

Catch Me runs through 9 July.

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.

Coulrophobia, Greenwich Theatre

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Pickled Image Theatre work with John Nicholson to produce and write Coulrophobia, which has been touring on and off for seven months. Coulrophobia – Two Clowns Trapped In A Cardboard World is performed by Dik Downey (company director) and Adam Blake. The tragic twosome pull out a series of cardboard puppets as they frolic about a set full, but not quite full enough, of cardboard boxes.

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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.