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: 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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