Review: No Show at Soho Theatre

Ellie Dubois’ No Show is a circus performance with a difference. It features five talented female circus professionals – Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Alice Gilmartin and Camille Toyer – each of whom makes us gasp in awe and disbelief as she demonstrates her “best trick”.

Photo credit: Chris Reynolds

So far, so standard. But this is not your usual seamless programme of death-defying stunts from a band of superhumans. These women are amazing acrobats – but they also get out of breath, fall over, argue and compete amongst themselves. They do tricks traditionally performed by men, in defiance of the expectation that because they’re girls they have to do only the dainty stuff. And they talk to the audience, explaining the huge physical risks they run each time they perform, and the difficulties they must contend with as women in a male-dominated world.

Most importantly, they look like they’re enjoying themselves; the first group routine might resemble the opening to a traditional circus show if not for the performers’ whoops of excitement as they throw themselves around the stage. They also chat amongst themselves as well as to the audience, giving the show a nicely improvised feel – at times it’s impossible to tell what’s planned and what’s made up on the spot.

But it’s not all good times and giggles. This show has a point to make, and for all our enjoyment, there are also parts of the performance that are deeply uncomfortable. One running joke involves Alice Gilmartin being interrupted each time she tries to address the audience, and bullied into performing increasingly dangerous handstands for our entertainment. Later in the show, Michelle Ross demonstrates her high trapeze routine on the floor because the venue’s too small for her to do it for real, and no larger theatres would have them. At one point all five pose in a series of graceful positions, their bored expressions revealing exactly how they feel about it. And unlike in most traditional circus performances where the action is non-stop and the audience barely acknowledged, there are periods where the acrobats simply sit and watch us just as intently as we’re watching them.

Photo credit: Chris Reynolds

The message is clear: life as a professional circus performer is far from as glamorous as we’re often led to believe. It’s hard and painful; there’s relentless pressure to always do better and give the audience more; and for women, there’s the additional obstacle of the gender stereotypes that would restrict them to a limited range of specialisms. No Show strips away the distance that traditionally exists between acrobats and audience – these may be highly trained professionals, but they’re also very down-to-earth, likeable women who are doing what they love on their own terms. The result is a thrilling, surprising and challenging hour’s entertainment.

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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.

Review: Belly of the Whale at Greenwich & Docklands Festival

Belly of the Whale, the new show from acclaimed aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor, began in 2016 as an idea to make “an easy to tour, small outdoor show exploring the relationship between two people”. Somewhere over the last two years, the “easy to tour” part has clearly gone out the window – the centrepiece of the performance is now a huge, heavy and architecturally fascinating structure of wood and steel affectionately known by the company as “the beast”. Despite this physical expansion, however, the heart of the show remains the same and the performance, directed by Tina Koch, retains a feeling of intimacy as it explores themes of friendship and collaboration in a unique and quietly thrilling 40 minutes.

Photo credit: Mark Dawson Photography

It soon becomes clear that the structure is much more than a prop; its versatility is revealed gradually, to the delight of adults and children alike, as it transforms from a slide to a see-saw to a climbing frame to a catapult – each demanding a different kind of interaction with the performers. The mechanical complexity is such that even when we think we’ve seen it all, another configuration is just around the corner, with at least one of these drawing a collective “ooh” from the assembled Greenwich crowd as it was revealed.

Each of the three performers – Amanda Homa, Nathan Johnston and Stefano di Renzo – gets an opportunity to impress with their own solo spot, but while their talent as individuals is undeniable, this isn’t a show that relies on sensational, gasp-inducing stunts to make its point, and in fact it’s when the three work together that the performance really comes alive. This is particularly true of the finale, which is obviously – and necessarily – very carefully choreographed to ensure the structure remains balanced, but to all intents and purposes appears to be just three friends having fun and existing together in peaceful, productive harmony. That image contrasts powerfully with moments early on in the show during which the three go out of their way to disrupt each other, and end up achieving very little as a result.

Included in this group camaraderie is composer and musician Gabriele Pierro, who provides a fascinating soundscape for the performance, combining live music with recorded sound effects that reflect the movement and mood on stage. When all these elements are brought together, the result is a show that’s innovative, entertaining, and mesmerising in more ways than one – and because it’s neither too long nor too scary, it’s perfect for audiences of any age.

Belly of the Whale continues on tour throughout the summer – all performances are free to attend. For a full list of dates and venues, visit Ockham’s Razor’s website.

Review: Flip FabriQue present Catch Me (Attrape-Moi) at Underbelly Festival

We have a tendency in everyday conversation to use the word “incredible” or “jaw-dropping” to describe something that’s usually just a bit surprising. And if that’s the case, we need to come up with a whole new word to describe the extraordinary talents of Flip FabriQue, whose show Catch Me can be seen this summer in the South Bank’s Underbelly tent. In a show that includes acrobatics, juggling and a – genuinely – unbelievable trampoline-based finale, the Canadian troupe of six left me exhausted, delighted and, by the end, spluttering incoherently in astonishment. (Apologies to anyone who attempted a conversation with me after the show.)

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

The company’s mission is to promote joy, playfulness and friendship – and it’s fair to say they succeed on all fronts. Catch Me is a perfect blend of individual talent, seamless teamwork and good-natured silliness. On the extremely rare occasion that slip-ups occur, they’re covered up with a cheerful giggle and an instruction that “you didn’t see that!” And that’s not the only time the audience is involved; with the stage just inches from the front row (so close that I ducked a couple of times, though such was the precision of everything else we were undoubtedly in no danger at all), the performers frequently engage with the spectators throughout the show, offering us privileged access to their gang as six old friends reunite for the weekend at the cottage they once shared.

The six performers (Christophe Hamel, Bruno Gagnon, Hugo Ouellet Côté, Jérémie Arsenault, Camila Comin and Yann Leblanc) are good friends as well as colleagues – and that friendship shines through as they engage in popsicle eating contests, stumble blindly around the stage with sleeping bags over their heads and – in one of my personal highlights – juggle giant beach balls to that old classic, Copacabana, all the while chattering amongst themselves in a mix of French and English. On one of the hottest days of the year so far, the show was pure irresistible summer fun (which is not to say it wouldn’t be just as enjoyable in the middle of winter; I’ve no doubt that it would).

Of course this is circus, so naturally there are a few heart-stopping moments, with one in particular drawing startled shrieks from some members of the audience, myself included. And there are some quieter, more nostalgic pieces too, which bring down the heart rate and allow us to admire the stunning talent on show at a more relaxed pace.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Regardless of the seemingly impossible feats being performed on stage, the overwhelming atmosphere of Catch Me is warm, welcoming and very relaxed – yet you know each detail will have been meticulously practised a thousand times, and it’s the performers’ incredible (yes, I said it) skill that enables them to make everything look so easy.

Fun for all the family, Catch Me is a hugely entertaining and truly memorable celebration of friendship, collaboration and fun, and absolutely worth a visit to the South Bank this summer.

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Review: It’s Not Yet Midnight at the Roundhouse

As someone who’s never even mastered the basic handstand, circus acts like Compagnie XY always fill me with two emotions, in fairly equal measure: awe – because I’m watching people do things that shouldn’t even be possible for the average human being, let alone someone as hopelessly uncoordinated as me – and dread, because it always seems very likely that at some point someone’s going to end up falling on their head.

Photo credit: David Levene

Of course, nobody actually does fall on their head in It’s Not Yet Midnight, the third show from the French collective… but it’s not for lack of trying. An action-packed programme sees the acrobats tumbling, flying and balancing high above the ground, seemingly without fear and often even with a hint of amusement. You know you’re looking at something pretty special when after a while even a three-person tower doesn’t warrant a round of applause any more. It’s not that it’s not impressive; it’s that they make it look so easy, like this is a completely everyday occurrence – which I guess for them it is – and that matter-of-fact attitude becomes slightly infectious.

But this is not just a troupe of acrobats stringing together trick after trick to dazzle us; there’s a story and a cheeky sense of humour to the show, which takes us through the events and emotions of a not-very-average night out. The evening begins with a mass brawl, followed by reconciliation, dancing, romance, uncontrollable laughter and a mesmerising dream-like sequence that sees one acrobat make her way across the stage balanced on her colleagues’ outstretched hands. In fact there’s so much going on, all the time, that it’s often hard to know where to look; while we’re watching a couple lindy hop at one side of the stage, it’s easy to miss another of those three-person towers being quietly constructed elsewhere. With all 22 acrobats on stage for most of the show, it’s complete chaos – but clearly of the meticulously organised kind.

Some stunts are set to music, others performed in pin-drop silence, interrupted only by the audience’s squeaks of terror as another body goes flying casually through the air. Though of course that terror isn’t really necessary – not just because these are obviously highly skilled acrobats who know exactly what they’re doing, but because such is the care and attention between the performers that if anything does go wrong, they’re always prepared. Though the stunts are undoubtedly incredibly risky and not to be tried at home, the trust between the acrobats – who live, work and train together – is absolute, and the show’s daring stems from the fact that every man and woman on the stage knows there’ll be someone there to catch them if they fall.

Photo credit: David Levene

Compagnie XY was founded on the principles of friendship and collaboration, the idea that “alone we go faster, together we go further”. This is true from a technical point of view – many of the stunts quite literally wouldn’t be possible without a team of people to play their part. But it also comes across in the spirit of 22 performers who, despite each being incredibly talented, make no attempt to outshine anybody else, and who often seem to be having just as much fun as the audience.

Despite gradually upping the stakes throughout the hour-long show, It’s Not Yet Midnight ends not with a dramatic finale, but with the group simply standing together on stage. Far from being a disappointment, this striking visual image sums up what the company and their show are all about, even before a moving curtain call message about the importance of working together. Consequently, the show ends up as heartwarming as it is sensational, jaw-dropping and hugely entertaining.

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