Review: Peepshow at Underbelly Festival

Acclaimed Australian circus ensemble Circa have taken up residence for the summer in the Spiegeltent at London’s Underbelly festival, and are already looking very much at home. The European premiere of their latest offering, Peepshow, opened this week on the South Bank to unanimous gasps of disbelief and awe from a spellbound audience.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The show moves away from the traditional with an intriguing blend of circus and cabaret, performed by a seven-strong cast under dramatic lights, to music so loud you can feel the beat of it in your chest. There’s a hula hoop routine that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen; a trapeze act that’s as mesmerising as it is terrifying to watch; bodies contorted at seemingly impossible angles; human towers that spring up out of nowhere, then tumble towards the ground at frightening speed. In a fun twist, an unwitting audience member chosen seemingly at random is revealed to be another performer only after she’s been forced to change her outfit on stage, get extremely hands on with a fellow cast member, and suddenly finds herself standing on the others’ shoulders, high above the stage.

The concept of the production, as explained by director Yaron Lifschitz, is to turn the traditional seedy connotations of the “peepshow” on their head, in a show that’s “about looking and about being seen” – inviting us to step through the mirror and view life from the other side. There’s certainly a knowing, almost flirtatious quality to the artists’ performance, which veers at times into burlesque territory; they’re fully aware that we’re there watching and admiring them, and as a result the audience and our reactions become as much a part of the show as the artists we’re observing. Apart from that, though, it’s not really clear what story Peepshow is trying to tell; what we have, essentially, is an hour of mind-blowing set pieces that aren’t really linked in any cohesive way.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Whether that matters or not is debatable, however; the skill on display is so astonishing that the audience is guaranteed a good time regardless. Every member of the cast shines as an individual, but Peepshow is all about the ensemble, and when all seven work together – whether they’re nimbly shimmying up a human tower, flinging their fellow cast members into space or balancing at impossible angles in mid-air – the visual impact is stunning. This is particularly true of the finale, which is all the more powerful for the fact we don’t see it coming, preceded as it is by a relatively subdued dream-like sequence that builds almost imperceptibly to the show’s incredible climax.

There’s a reason Circa are known as the rockstars of the circus world; they certainly know how to put on a great show that thrills and entertains. What the show lacks in narrative thread, it more than makes up for in energy and daring, and earns every second of the standing ovation that concludes the evening.

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