Lyric Theatre Hammersmith
Where: Outer London
30 January 2006 WOS Rating: Reader Reviews: View and add to our user reviews The fun starts in the foyer at , Kneehigh Theatre's startling adaptation of Nights at the Circus Angela Carter's 1984 novel about big-top hi-jinks at the turn of the last century. As we wait for the doors to open, five prattling actors push through us to apply whiteface in front of five illuminated make-up tables, blithely oblivious to the bemused punters looking on.
The vivid theatricality continues once the performance starts proper - a demented collage of puppetry, slapstick, acrobatics and pantomime, strung together with sardonic musical numbers that suggest the spirit of
Kurt Weill is alive and, well, Weill. The result, though fairly chaotic, is never less than exhilarating. Director Emma Rice and her writing partner Tom Morris use every trick in their arsenal to conjure up Carter's beguiling world of myth, magic and fantasy.
In 1899 London the hottest act in town is Fevvers (
Natalia Tena), a music hall trapeze artist with the wings of an angel and the mouth of a sea-salt. Each of these prove equally alluring to Walser ( Gisli Orn Gardarsson), a disillusioned reporter from the New York Times with orders to expose this Cockney Venus as a fake. Joining her travelling circus troupe as a clown, the young man follows her to St Petersburg - the setting for a darker and more sinister second act in which the gaudy glitz of life under canvas is revealed to be founded on cruelty, violence and cynical exploitation.
Crammed with fruity language, prosthetic genitals and sadistic horseplay, this audacious production treads a fine line between burlesque gaiety and gothic Grand Guignol, most notably during a musical number which sees a drunken clown (inspired perhaps by the strongman played by
Anthony Quinn in Fellini's La Strada) warble a tuneful elegy about spousal abuse. (The promotional material says the play is suitable for ages 14+, though parents might wish to take advice before entrusting their teens to its tender mercies.)
At its best, however, Rice's show is a striking testament to theatre's ability to captivate and transport, often on the slimmest of budgets. (
could learn a thing or two from the tiger act scene that sees snarling beasts fashioned out of a couple of saws and two iron buckets.) And in its closing image of Fevvers taking to the air on undulating bungee cords, it provides the wings on which all our imaginations can soar. The Lion King
- Neil Smith (reviewed at the Lyric Hammersmith)
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