The Roundhouse Circus Company
The Roundhouse Circus Company

The Square Peg Contemporary Circus (directed by Tim Lenkiewicz) takes a traditional approach to their art. There are no screens and few props so the story is told purely by the acrobatic and dance prowess of the four women and three men who comprise the Circus and the choreography of Martin Corri.

If the technique is well established their choice of material is audacious. Their current production is based on Coleridge's epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Although elements of cheating occur-excerpts from the poem are used – the recitation and plainsong singing are, again, in the traditional mode.

The subject matter does not suggest humour yet the production opens in a light-hearted manner as if to highlight the pleasures that will be lost as the story continues. To a jaunty sea shanty the ship's crew make ready to sail. This boisterous sequence involves the cast swarming along the central steel structure and up and down the various poles erected on the stage.

The cast even tightrope walk to ensure the sail is correctly hoisted and form a human pyramid to reach and ring the bell hanging over the stage. It is a fine demonstration of a group working in unison that makes their eventual division as the play progresses all the more bitter.

Although telling a tale of tragedy the tone of the show is not entirely dour. A desperate race for the last morsel of food on the becalmed ship becomes a farcical chase ending in a Keystone Cops style pile up.

After the jolly opening the style of dance becomes more introspective and even tortured. The dances performed at stage level capture the despair of the crew suffering from the effects of the curse. The synchronised twitching and writhing of the cast invokes the delirium caused by thirst.

The graceful acrobatics (largely performed in mid-air) reflect the efforts of the crew to escape but do not lighten the darkening mood. The acrobats climbing up, and becoming entangled in, strips of fabric brings to mind the winding sheets used for burial at sea. The death-defying (but only just) pole slides capture the increasing fatalism of the crew. A dancer repeats the slide getting closer and closer to crashing into the stage before finally stopping only an inch or so from collision.

The Circus ends the show with a blast of showbiz swagger. The final destruction of the doomed vessel is marked by a series of acrobatic feats including a dramatic rope swing across the stage in the style of cinematic pirate captains.

Rime cannot be said to be entirely true to the spirit of the source material – the tone is not consistent and the celebratory ending strikes a false note after the loss of a crew. Yet it is completely absorbing and a stunning example of storytelling by physical theatre.

Rime continues at the Lowry until 13 April and continues to tour. Full dates are here.

- Dave Cunningham