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.

Amaluna, Cirque du Soleil at Royal Albert Hall

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Nearly twenty years ago, I went to my first Cirque du Soleil show in New York. A young teenager and already obsessed with theatre and performance, I was blown away by the colour and spectacle, having never seen anything like it before in the fourteen years that I’d been on this earth. I have no concrete memories of the show, just flashes of light and colour, and feeling impressed. I looked forward to see if Amaluna, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, would live up to my juvenile memories.

It took a while to find out. First, I had to meet my critic friend, who had invited me as her guest, at door 6 at 7:30. I approached Royal Albert Hall from the side closest to Exhibition Road and found myself at door 3. Not being familiar with the venue, I picked a direction and soon found I was going the wrong way. Considering it’s a circular building and I was early, I carried on and found myself at door 6.

WHAT SHEER HELL IS THIS? At door 6 was Cirque’s version of a red carpet (it was blue), a queue of luxury cars out of which vaguely familiar people emerged in black tie and evening gowns, bright lights and hordes of shouting paparazzi. A few cold looking performers in costume posed for photographs, film crews conducted interviews and vicious looking security guards hovered, ready to move on anyone that looked like they didn’t belong.

I’ve been to a lot of press nights, but this was incomparable. More like a film premiere or awards ceremony, Cirque at some point took the circus outside the venue and into the media and celebrity world. When did this happen? Or more importantly, why? Does Cirque really need the publicity so badly that they pander to the vapid world of Big Brother contestants and paparazzi? And how was I supposed to find my friend in this mess?

Giving wide berth to this bright and shiny, “OK Magazine Live!” shitshow, I carried on to the other side of the large foyer that the blue carpet led to. Fortunately door 6 was duplicated opposite and the nice usher on the door let me wait in the warm. I still managed to be early. The performers across the foyer still looked cold; it dawned on me that they had to be onstage doing acrobatics in less than an hour and that they were either understudies/doubles or Cirque is more interested in photo ops with celebs than the wellbeing of their performers. I desperately hope it’s the former.

Anyway, the show itself. Nearly. We had great seats in a box allocated for press but I didn’t realise at first just how good they were. Or rather, how expensive, until critic friend informed me what they were retailing for. My initial reaction was an inner explosion of flabbergast, “people around us paid HOW MUCH for this show?” Then I realised: press get their tickets free, as does the wafting, gormless army of famous people, so how much is Cirque actually making out of this press gala? Especially considering the post-show reception (we declined our invitation to attend) and the swathes of empty seats in the upper galleries. These are the cheapest seats, but on a press night, why are they empty? Were they marked up so much that they weren’t bought? Are people not interested in Cirque anymore? (In which case, they desperately need the media attention.) Or, did Cirque keep them vacant so plebs didn’t gawp over their famous fellow audience members? Regardless of the reason, none of the prospective answers are positive.

NOW for the show. Really.

I love when theatre and performance makers mess about with Shakespeare. It can prove his work is still relevant and opens the possibility of a new perspective or insight. The programme states that this is a female-driven show: Prospero is now Prospera, and Amaluna is Miranda’s empowering coming-of-age story. The band is entirely female, as is most of the cast. A feminist adaptation of a Shakespeare play for circus? It should be brilliant, and exceed my youthful memories of my last Cirque show.

It’s not brilliant. Sure, it’s bright, colourful and a consistent sensory overload. The skill-set of the performers is top notch. There are acrobats, aerialists of all kinds, clowns, Chinese pole performers, and juggling. It’s technically impressive. It’s easy to get swept away by the spectacle of the whole thing.

There’s little substance, though. They story is a vague framework for the circus acts and spectacle. Most importantly, the supposedly empowering female narrative is anything but. Prospera throws a party for her daughter Miranda, who then bathes in the light of the aerial hoop performing Moon Goddess who bestows her with a gift of a glass sphere. It’s an obvious metaphor for Miranda’s  womanhood/menstrual cycle, and a cringy one at that which doesn’t contribute anything to The Tempest aspect story. Miranda also meets a prince who has washed up on their island in a storm. Called Romeo rather than Ferdinand (dear god, why???), Miranda immediately falls in love with his sculpted, often shirtless body. Her best friend Cali, a half-lizard-half-man creature, is jealous of the man who’s taking away Miranda’s attention from him. The two male characters compete for young Miranda’s attention and the pretty, shipwrecked Romeo was always going to win, gifted with a wedding and all. It was like an old school Disney film. Empowering to women? No, no, NO. The narrative presented was about as disempowering as you can get, particularly when you factor in the creepy plot points of an unseen Romeo watching Miranda bathe and hand balance in white shorts that become nearly transparent from the water (You can see EVERYTHING. I’m pretty sure I could see up into her stomach during the splits.), and Cali abducting her into the heavens to keep her to himself. Also consider for a moment that in Shakespeare’s version, Caliban raped Miranda and is enslaved by her father as consequence. Plus, if this is Miranda’s coming-of-age celebration, she’s how old? Sixteen AT THE OLDEST. And she get married at the end of a story that spans no more than a couple of days? This is supposed to be a piece of performance that empowers women.

There’s also plenty of creeping elsewhere in the show. The two clowns, one a nanny to the young Miranda and one a washed up sea captain. Mainha and Papulya are overtly sexual, and as cringy as the Moon Goddess. There’s classical Commedia influence in the pratfalls and lazzi-like sketches full of groping, arse kissing and manipulation. I get that circus performers have to wear tight clothes for their work, but the men are often topless for no apparent reason and there’s more female flesh on display than needs be.

Ignoring the narrative and theme, the individual acts and the show of it is celebratory, fun and a showcase of skill. However, Cirque as a vast, commercial institution raises some concerns, and the perception of female empowerment and celebration by their creative and marketing team when the reality is the opposite is not only highly disturbing, but a sign of endemic patriarchal complacency about what is an acceptable lens to view womanhood through in the performing arts.

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.

La Soirée, Southbank Centre

rsz_1bret_pfister_image_by_bertil_nilssonSouthbank Centre has a spiegeltent in residence under the Hungerford Bridge; it’s a sexy, glam, velvet and mirrored thing miles away from shabby travelling circuses with tired acts. It’s a fitting home for La Soirée, a heady mix of circus, cabaret and variety performance from around the world. Each act has a distinct character combined with extraordinary skill sets, often leaning towards adult and edgier content. Though the characters created as a vehicle for the skills on display generally rely on stereotypes, this doesn’t diminish the impressiveness of the techniques. The sumptuous environment and range of talent on show makes for a frivolous, fun night of light entertainment with heaping dose of sex appeal.

Though not solely circus, La Soirée seems to focus on circus arts and use other performance styles to add variation. They also change the lineup on a regular basis, so any given night is unique. These artists are multi-skilled, too: The English Gents are a pair of balancing acrobats, who separately are a bubble artist and a pole dancer. Captain Frodo contorts himself through tennis racquets as well as doing a bit of comedy magic. My favourite is Asher Treleaven, who has a sexual Diablo routine as well as a side-splittingly funny stand up act around a Mills & Boon novel. Then there’s a hoop artist, an aerialist using a single strap and a hand balancer on a motorbike. A singer, and modern clown/comedian Mooky with a double act composed of herself and a willing audience member complete the lineup. All of these performances take place on a tiny round stage, no more than 2 metres across.

There’s plenty of subversion in the event, as there always has been in circus – the exotic on display for the everyday Joe to get a glimpse at those who are unwilling or unable to conform to the status quo. From large tattoos and a lesbian kiss, to deliberately dislocated joints and extreme flexibility, that “otherness” is still very much present, even though its more mild forms no longer shock us. That subversion is sexy, titillating and occasionally grotesque, making the groups of business people on corporate outings squirm as well as gasp. It’s so easy to be impressed by the physical abilities, but the additional layers of characterization make these acts stand out from others I’ve seen previously. I don’t see much circus, cabaret or variety, but La Soirée has such a high quality range of acts that it’s hard not to be impressed.


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