CircusFest 2014 Review: Puffball

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Appearing at the Roundhouse as part of Circusfest 2014, Puffball is a complicated show to critique, as it was developed partly as a social circus project, and partly as a professional production. There is an apparent theatrical naivety to much of the direction, giving a juvenile feel to the material, yet the young performers are sharing genuine emotions and heartfelt concepts that rise, at moments, above the clichés.

IMAGE: Stephen King
IMAGE: Stephen King

There are beautiful – and grotesque – visual images here, set to Jules Maxwell’s original score of delicate lounge jazz and sumptuous folk harmonies, which evoke the struggles of finding love and your own identity.  Developed over a year, through workshops with young people across the UK who identify themselves as LGBTQ, artist Mark Storer has combined snippets of real life stories and experiences with elements of circus performance and visual artistry.  The performers onstage comprise of professional circus artists, musicians, and novices selected from initial workshops; the large-scale ensemble nature of the piece waters down some strong skilled elements from individuals of both camps.

Tanwen Watson shows versatility and emotional range as an actress as well as lithe aerialist in a touching doubles trapeze act performed from a suspended bed with Hamish Tjoeng, and in her cameo as comic giant Tim; Tjoeng also shows us a darker side in his physical performance during a tense dance of power imbalance with Diego F. Martinez from a suspended chain.

Max Beecher (MaxLastic) is a serenely balletic contortionist producing images of extreme grace most usually associated with femininity, and plays a part in an achingly familiar love triangle between Max Calas Sevé on his trampoline and Benjamin Gregor trapped beneath.  There is a flash of fire from Christopher Willoughby (Chrysalys), and some interesting play with air currents and hanging drapes of silk from Alice Ellerby on her cloud swing; but these visual tokens never garner the audible response that circus acts are known for.

Most illustrative of the inner turmoil that bleeds through the fabric of Puffball is Paul Evans‘ expressive static trapeze routine, with its gasp inducing changes of pace, surprising drops and – ouch – 10 backward elbow rotations.  This pain is real.

There is a definite feel of teenage angst to the whole show.  The emotions may be universal, but the expressions of them sometimes lack depth and subtlety. Texts are raw and unpolished, so when Jolene O’Sullivan‘s triumphant pride and passion shine through in ownership of a hard-won individuality, I am reminded of reality TV stories and left cold.

With highly personal work editing is always a challenge, and this smorgasbord of activity fails to allow the fleeting moments of absurd humour or tender connection to develop into their full potential. Traditionally circus is characterised by vibrant changes in dynamic, which Puffball avoids, maintaining a sedate pace throughout.  This is more live art, reflecting Storer’s roots, and often resorts to stock images, neglecting some of the naked possibilities provided by the elegant set.

Perhaps, on a mainstream stage, recurring motifs of being wrapped in cling-film, blood-letting, and rituals of cleansing are escaping their previous realms of aprés-avant garde performance art and devised student theatre; then again, perhaps there is a reason that they have rarely succeeded on a grander scale.

I leave with the lyric from one of the show’s musical accompaniments resounding in my brain: “Don’t indulge in sleepless nights, lead the dark into the light.”  

IMAGE: Stephen King
IMAGE: Stephen King

Circusfest 2014 Review: Silver Lining

The painfully young and hip Silver Lining are not short on camaraderie.Read more

Circusfest celebrates new as well as established talent. Silver Lining are a fresh young troupe looking to impress. Did they?

Watching Silver Lining, a feeling of dread sets in from the off. Juggler Tom Gaskin approaches the audience with a plastic cigar, an umbrella and a hat. While he does some basic tricks, I can feel one of my feet inadvertently tapping out a message: dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot, ess-oh-ess, same old shit.  Bad becomes worse as Gaskin’s winning smile can’t cover for his occasional unintentional fumbles. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a suspicion forms that tonight a far off street corner was absent its usual busker.

And then, while holding the cigar between his lips and balancing the hat on the umbrella, Gaskin launches the umbrella high into the air and on the way down somehow catches it upright on the cigar. There’s a hat on an erect umbrella on a fake cigar in someone’s mouth. The foot stops tapping.

It should be noted that Silver Lining‘s eponymous troupe are all painfully young and hip. Anyone with an inner urge to happy-slap every hipster they come across may need to sit on their hands during this show. Indeed, you could saunter past this photogenic bunch on Dalston High Street and not realise that they were a tight crew of fabulous circus freaks in the making.

How do we know this? Well, for starters, they know how to put on a fluid and engaging show. Over the course of just over an hour, the action swings from a Glee-like musical ensemble to a slumber party, a picnic and a camping trip. Rather than being a series of cheerful non sequiturs, artful stage direction blends the parts into a relatively seamless whole.

They work together and for each other in a myriad of marvellous and innovative ways. We’re used to seeing cyr wheels and performers in a strict ratio of one to one yet seeing Gaskin and cyr wheel specialist Charlie Wheeller spin around inside the large hoop is both refreshing and fun. The two team up on another usually solo routine, cigar box juggling; this time Wheeller is dressed as a monkey and Gaskin playing the organ grinder desperate to keep the boxes away from the chimp and within his own grasp as he throws them and himself around.

Another twist is provided by hand balancer Niamh Reilly. While the current crop of her ilk like Stephen Williams and Sammy Dineen tend to use no small amount of toned brawn to dazzle, the redheaded Reilly spins the artform in a different direction by adding to her upside-down act both live singing and expressive gymnastics. Another musical number sees Wheeller gyrating inside a cyr wheel to the sounds of Jacques Brel’s La Valse a Mille Temps; as Brel speeds himself into a frenetic fizz towards the end of the song, Wheeller matches the pace in splendid synchrony. Circus is more than just visual fireworks and Reilly and Wheeller’s routines are stirring reminders that, at times, the big top can inflame and touch the human soul as much as any cathedral or temple.

And why wait until you’re alone late at night to see two hunky guys get hot, physical and sweaty? A David and Goliath pairing, Beren D’Amico and Louise Gift are two hand-to-hand acrobats who complement each other’s strengths; the larger D’Amico throwing Gift around like so much taffeta while the latter flips and balances upon his partner with great flair. True, there’s some audible wincing heard when Gift smacked into the ground at one point but this only emphasised the high stakes and cost of this often overlooked circus skill.

Unfortunately, the aerialists’ acts don’t pack the same punch. Lydia Harper is technically adept on the double cloud with her mid-air splits and final somersault into the arms of her colleagues both high points of a routine which never really gets going before it ends. Tom Ball‘s trapeze antics are, at least in comparison to what has gone before, plain and perfunctory and feel tacked onto the end of the proceedings.

While often a little rough around the edges, there is much to applaud here. The innovative and collaborative approach to wellworn circus tropes is a welcome sight and highly commendable. Moreover, the camaraderie and interplay demonstrated in ample measure is an impressive asset to Silver Lining both as a show and a troupe. Somewhere along the way, this disparate ragbag of twisters and tumblers somehow became sisters and brothers and I look forward to seeing them back at Circusfest 2016.

Silver Lining. Presented in association with Jacksons Lane. The Roundhouse, London NW1 8EH. 9-12 April, 19:45, 21:00.

For more treats like this, see our Ultimate Guide To Circusfest 2014.

Review: The Worst Of Scottee

The Worst Of Scottee continues at the Roundhouse until 15 February.Read more


The Worst Of Scottee continues at the Roundhouse until 15 February.
The Worst Of Scottee continues at the Roundhouse until 15 February.

Whereas “Best Of” albums tend to signal that a band’s sell-by date is overdue, The Worst of Scottee highlights the eponymous artist at the height of his expressive powers. This giddy pinnacle is reached whilst wallowing in the messy gutter of his past. And boy does Scottee wallow in this show…

Littered with chippies, cheap make-up and invented suicides, Scottee constructs a charmingly nostalgic image of ill-advised adolescence. He does this through a series of anecdotes about people he wronged during his Camden council estate upbringing, dragging his own name unashamedly through the mud.  Mishaps, such as telling someone you have HIV when you don’t, are high in the perverse dark humour stakes and pack shock factor like a Daily Mail headline. When its boils down to it, though, Scottee is no more “a bad person” than the next guy. In fact for all its brash over-exposure, the show serves as a gentle, melancholy reminder of how easy it is to tell lies and how unwittingly we hurt those around us. Scottee is an amplification of our self-obsessed, oblivious modern selves.

Framed in profile and live-streamed on video from the inside of a photobooth, the staging is perfect as it effortlessly conjures associations with both Roman Catholic confessionals and our culture of carefully packaged self-representation. It is both a public space for exhibitionism and a lonely private cell.

There is however, something emotionally gratuitous in watching a grown man recount the grubby blunders of his youth, even when he’s dressed in drag and crying tears that resemble oil slick. Much of Scottee’s previous work focuses on food, greed and obesity and whilst on the surface this performance is stripped back and brutally honest, it has a glutinous, slutty side too. Yes, he speaks with an economic and penetrating wit and wastes no words on morally condoning or condemning himself but everything about his monologue is gobby, indulgent and excessive.

It seems that we’ve built up a culture around this stuff, getting off on seeing other people “confess” or bare all: a constant, ultimately wretched, retching up of things that our parents wouldn’t even dream of admitting they wanted to know. There are no closed doors behind which to wash your dirty laundry and indeed we wave it around in the proverbial street known as the internet. Facebook break-ups, twitter trolls and tinder dalliances – let’s face it we are all pretty much running naked around cyberspace. The Worst of Scottee feeds from this culture of over-sharing, where our wild, inappropriate, wrong side is just another attentively created and curated aspect of our online personas. Scottee’s show reflects on the ubiquitous selfie and the Facebook generation who put themselves in the stocks and see public degradation as entertainment. Up this close, it makes for hilarious but powerfully unsettling viewing.

The Worst Of Scottee. The Roundhouse, London NW1 8EH. 10 February 2014. £10-£15. Until 15 February.

Review: Scottee’s Camp

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Commissioned by The Roundhouse, Scottee: Camp fights the cause of light entertainment in the Studio Theatre. With a burst of sparkle, Scottee takes to the stage in a glorious entrance, singing a pop-tastic rendition of Copacabana, while the back-up dancers of Japan’s People  join reluctantly, staring blankly into the distance.

Camp it may be, but light is arguable. For all the Primark tights of Scottee’s frequent costume changes and cheerleader rap by faux-showgirl Bryony Kimmings, the show returns to its creator’s well-known confrontational style with Ruth Chidgey’s performance art skit, which fills the room with an overpowering egg stench. Lighter comedy follows as David Mills obsesses over big presidential hair, with some circus thrown in (this is CircusFest, after all) in the form of Jess Love and her breast-juicer-draining, hula-hoop-shaking martini-making number.

This haribo mixed bag of sweets also includes a game show moment with prizes and Scottee’s new work Jim’ll Didn’t, Scottee Will, a parody of BBC programme Jim’ll Fix It that makes dreams come true, but with terrifying magic. Drag queen Titti La Camp captures the rib-tickling essence of Susan Boyle’s campest moments from Britain’s Got Talent. London’s reigning king of freakish folly Mat Fraser ends the show with a shocking dance routine.

Camp relies heavily on Scottee’s continuous on-the-ball wit, which is never in short supply. It is funny. It is entertaining. It is borderline mad. A clever, laugh-out-loud, tear-inducing cabaret to watch, despite Scottee’s apparent renunciation of “the C word”.

Scottee: Camp. Performed by TIC columnist Scottee and guests. Roundhouse, London NW1 8EH. 14, 21 and 28 April, 21:00. £5-15.

Cirque Mandingue: Foté Foré

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Guinean-French company Cirque Mandingue opened the 2012 CircusFest at the Roundhouse with the UK premiere of its acclaimed inaugural show Foté Foré. Translating as “black white” in the Susu language of coastal Guinea, the show is as much about cultural differences as it is about energy, of which it has no shortage.

The dancing is composed of sharp, erratic, speedier-than-light jerks of the arms and legs thrown into space, then retracted like synaptic beats. It is fast and frantic, reaching a fever pitch by the end of the production with an array of acrobatic fireworks exploding on the stage.

The circus skills are impressive, most particularly the flying acrobatics, which the performers throw off with catlike ease, vaulting their muscular physiques back and forth like missiles. By far the most remarkable act comes from the ridiculously talented Aboulaye Keita, who performs one of the most skilful pieces of contortion you’ll ever see, limbs twisting and stretching beyond belief. At one point his torso appears to corkscrew all the way around, like something from The Exorcist. It is a tribute to his performance skills that while the number is shocking and funny, it also remains hypnotically beautiful. The decision, therefore, to pair him later on with Régis Truchy for a double act seems a little disjointed (yes, bad pun), as it is hard to take your eyes off Keita in order to appreciate Truchy’s own punchy popping, locking and ripples.

The weakest point of Foté Foré is its storyline. An initial pantomime-like sequence sees Truchy heading off with a suitcase to visit the Guinean circus company for some skill-swapping: but after a couple of brief colourful scenes, any attempt at story or examining cultural divides is forgotten until it is time for him to leave again. Likewise, there’s not much in the way of characterisation – a shame, as it could have provided a good way of engaging the audience. Instead, acts are linked with with yet more dancing, which does at times make you feel like you’re watching the troupe do an extensive warm up.

Overall, Cirque Mandingue’s Foté Foré is a ragged and vibrant show that pulsates with relentless vitality.

Foté Foré. Performed by Cirque Mandingue. Roundhouse, London NW1 8EH. 28, 30-31 March; 2-4, 6-7 April, 19:30. £5-20.