This Is Cabaret Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Black Cat Cabaret returns this summer with Nocturne, a show that proclaims itself as where “operatic bravura meets circus high skills”. As Wonderground brings back to the South Bank its yearly plethora of cabaret and circus it is nice to witness an attempt to do more than just circus or cabaret, but to mix with it a good dose of theatre, opera and indeed, psychoanalysis.

The show tells the story of a man (Ben Cutler), or rather an archetype, who falls asleep on the tube and enters a world filled with nymphs and sirens (as well as pigs and chickens). That world comes to life through Lili La Scala‘s enchanting voice and a crepuscular ambience, for that’s where Nocturne exists, aesthetically: somewhere on the limit, in the forever twilight of the Spiegeltent. The costumes designed by Magdalene Celeste and the musical choices throughout the show emphasize the dreamlike flavour of the whole endeavour and that’s all very consistent with what the show sets up to do, namely draw inspiration from Freud and Jung’s work on the analysis of dreams.

Indeed, from an aesthetic point of view, Nocturne is a great success. It is dark and mysterious, romantic almost. From a technical standpoint the show is equally stunning, starting with a hand to hand act by Nathan and Isis who re-enact once more the acrobalance routine where both performers are lovers and the guy lifts the girl and the same story is repeated in aeternum in every circus show. Except that in this case the throws and the catches are truly breathtaking and after all why not, perhaps it is fine to perform what can be a cliché as long as you do it extremely well.

Katrina Lilwall executes a very smooth, graceful, arousing chain routine where she embodies the eternal figure of the female seductress. Later on she gives an intoxicating fire performance, for of course the temptress is never to be found too far from the fires of Hell. And the show ends with Bret Pfister‘s aerial hoop performance, a definitive highlight. It is aerial hoop like it should be done but taken a step further with more oversplits, weird poses and painful hangs than anyone else; truly, a wonderful display of aerial mastery.

Circus-wise, Nocturne is indeed a feast for the eyes and it is all carried by the dreamlike, closed-eyes and starry-skied atmosphere. However, where the show shines visually, it lacks in substance. Nocturne sets up to explore the human psyche and the great archetypes that compose it. But it would appear that if you are a man your psyche is busy with only two things: sex and your mum. Old news of course but that’s all a bit too simple.

Amy G plays the role of the mother and gives some of the evening most interesting (and absurd, as are dreams) moments. The trauma of an embarrassing mother, getting drunk at your birthday party, dancing around dressed as a chicken. The fat-shaming. The horror. Now that’s specific, that’s relatable, that feels real.

In comparison the rest of the show feels like an archetype where only the most obvious compulsions are explored in the most stereotypical way (two lovers loving each other, pretty girl in the air, pretty girls dancing, pretty girl singing, pretty girl and fire.) Basically, pretty girls all round, sometimes for no apparent reason. Even Bret’s aerial performance goes pretty much unexplained: what does it stand for? Is it hinting at the hero’s bisexuality? Does it perhaps represent the looming threat of a badly dealt with Oedipe? Is it the ego flying through the air? Is it the hero himself? Is it the Id?

Most importantly, is that really what our subconscious is made of? Who knows. Mine is much weirder and much less pretty. But I guess that would have made for a very different kind of show.

Nocturne. Produced by The Black Cat Cabaret. London Wonderground, Jubilee Gardens, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX. From £19.00. Until 11 September on selected Fridays.