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Review: Backbone (McEwan Hall, Edinburgh)

Gravity and Other Myths return to the Fringe with a zany, irreverent piece of circus

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Backbone
© Nikola Milatovic

There's something quite epic about watching circus within the stupidly massive walls of McEwan Hall, especially at a festival known for its ad-hoc performance spaces normally erected inside student canteens or gyms.

Eschewing both Underbelly's purpose-built Circus Hub out on the meadows and any traditional categorisation, Australian theatre company Gravity & Other Myths' show, which has apparently run more than 170 times in 18 different countries, is the sort of bat-s**t trippy breed of circus that is as divisive as it is irreverent. Underneath a looming, ornate organ, the performers slowly congregate on stage as the audience files in, lying on the floor. Lights come up and they start getting dressed, sporting checkered shirts and shorts as if extras in a Foster's advert. Then they start jumping on each other, and the circus magic begins.

This is a weird beast of a spectacle – with flickering strobes and hazes wafting over the space. Lights, reflected off large, glass squares strung on the rig above, make this a tech-heavy experience augmented by some solid musical accompaniment from the side of the stage.

Equipment is very thin on the ground (a selection of poles) meaning the vast majority of the work is achieved through sheer human strength. The talent is palpable, with some sequences - particularly one involving five Chinese poles - leaving strikingly spine-tingling imagery. The company as a whole has a strange obsession with rocks, caking the stage floor in gravel and lugging heavy, unwieldy stones in their arms while in the middle of routines. It feels like it's been cooked up by someone who watched every single Kubrick, Anderson and Jeunet film. At the same time.

Of course, as in any circus show, there are momentary lulls, but it seems increasingly the case at the Fringe that the best circus shows are those with a sense of humour. In Backbone the piss-taking is incessant; at one point a suit of armour is trotted out as a gimmick, while an on-stage ‘miscommunication' leads to some amusingly subversive fisticuffs between members of the company.