A new collaboration between Tamasha and Circus Space is a strange multi-layered story of journeys and migrations.

The Arrival makes uneven use of circus and theatre.

The Arrival makes uneven use of circus and theatre.

The Arrival is a reworking of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel of the same name in a collaboration between Tamasha and Circus Space. Four and a half years in the making, it’s a strange multi-layered story of journeys and migrations, pertinent to a city that is one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet, where the word multiculturalism has many meanings. It’s also a good subject for Tamasha who have been working to bring Asian culture into the British mainstream now for twenty-three years with some notable successes.

There is a lot of suspense in moving to a new place, a new country and a new continent – utterly unimaginable to a migrant who has come from a small town on the other side of the world and this is brought out in quite a literal sense by suspending performers in the air using various pieces of apparatus. Projections, recorded voices, snippets of conversation are woven together to bring together people of different backgrounds across time into something cohesive in the shared experience of disembarking and not knowing what the world will bring you next.

The Arrival works through it’s effective staging and changing tempo and the verbatim passages of experiences of immigrants to this country, which makes it genuinely moving in places. One passage about seeing snow for the first time strikes true to me as it recalls an almost identical conversation I had with a man from Zambia in Manchester once. The words are in of themselves quite wonderful, and it’s effective because it forces us to empathise with people who are all too often marginalised without in any way being didactic.

The production as a whole is successful and shows the skill in Kristine Landon-Smith’s direction. The pace is particularly good and the energy of the piece ebbs and flows, heightening the tension to draw the audience in only to let it go in a comic moment. However, though this is a marriage of two parties it is not an equal one, for while the circus serves to highlight thematic resonances within the drama, the drama does not serve to highlight the circus elements in their own right.

During the question and answer session following the piece I asked why this story was told through circus and the answer was simply that there had been the possibility of a collaboration. A marriage of convenience then! When directing performers, anything resembling “a trick” was discarded; this has left the circus so underplayed that at many points it simply disappears. These are graduates of Circus Space who have spent years training and The Arrival does not fully utilise their skills.

The aerial hoop performance lasts less than a minute and the rope routine is similarly short. The silks are not used save to make a sort of cocoon and may as well have been a hammock: the slack line is hidden as a string of lights and the straps is used only for a comic moment.

While circus productions often use scenery to give their apparatus a flavour, here it seems like the circus is forced to apologise for itself – and only the chinese pole comes close to being developed. Tamasha have missed a trick here by not letting the performers do what they are trained for. The thick accents and broken speech that punctuates the production are indicative of people who have the same vastly complex emotional landscapes as all humans have, yet are unable to express it to their full potential, what better way to show this inner world non-linguistically than via the artistry of physical circus movement?

Those who like drama told in interesting new ways should like this piece. Those who enjoy circus may well be left wanting more.

The Arrival. By Tamasha & Circus Space. Jacksons Lane, London. Until 13 April.

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