Black Cat: Bohemia, Underbelly Southbank

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by an anonymous guest critic

Black Cat: Bohemia is a French-style cabaret show combining many exciting acts, including fire eating, aerial choreography and hula-hoop jumping. All of this is interspersed with lots of singing and dancing.

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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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Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow, London Horror Festival

Freak Show by Chris BrockI’m watching Ben Whitehead play a socially inept Victorian playing a half-walrus/half-man creature, indicated by the wearing of a hooded grey sleeping bag, blue swimming flippers on his hands, and paper tusks precariously attached to his face with a false moustache. I’m pondering the life choices I’ve made that led me to this moment as well as whether or not the character-based stand up/absurd solo performance/live art/Victorian freakshow satire/old-fashioned variety show that unfolds before me is one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve ever encountered, or the worst. It may possibly be both. I still haven’t decided, and may not ever do so, let alone by the time I finish this review. Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow violently mashes up genres in a bizarre yet often-hilarious piece that manages to be both straightforward and bafflingly random.

Whitehead’s narrator Fred Strangebone cuts an imposing figure in a dinner suit, black shirt, and velvet bowtie. His rigidity and demeanor remind me of Lurch in the original The Addams Family series from the 1960s, but more well spoken and deadpan. Fred tells us exactly what’s going to happen: he will perform some comedy, then tell us a tale of unspeakable horror, and then, time permitting, he’s going to kill himself. His tale of unspeakable horror is more of a speakable mystery (so he says), where Strangebone goes to the freakshow and meets the walrus man and other oddities affiliated with the travelling show. These characters are a fantastic platform for accomplished voice actor Whitehead to get stuck into, and an enjoyably grotesque one at that. After a failed attempt to impress the freakshow to the point that they invite him to join them, he fulfills his initial promise…or does he? The meta-theatre from the stand-up clouds the levels of reality within Fred’s world.

Each of Whitehead’s creations could be a piece in itself, but he connects them through an overarching storyline. This structure could do with some work, as the narration between characters is often thin, with a tenuous link from one character to the next. The dwarfish property developer with pink wellies chewing on a cigar made of chorizo, whilst hilarious, only loosely fits into the established story. A scriptwriter or script consultant could have a positive influence on the story. His comedy is achingly funny, using absurdity and grotesque imagery to generate laughter mixed with disgust. Like when the demon bin-babies vomit all over mute clown cleaner, Sid, after he breast-feeds them to a monstrous soundtrack. (That was another one of those existential moments for me I mentioned earlier.)

Despite the rough structure and the script with predetermined characters crowbarred in, Whitehead has a fantastic sense for the absurdly funny and Fred Strangebone’s Freakshow manages to pay homage to several earlier popular performance forms – including the freakshow (obviously), variety, cabaret and travelling circus. There’s some audience participation, but the piece is more presentational than interactive. The event is a baffling, bizarre and uniquely wonderful one that refuses to be classified into one particular performance genre and certainly a one-of-a-kind contribution to the London Horror Festival this year.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.