Review: A Simple Space (Underbelly)
Australian circus troupe Gravity and Other Myths returns to the South Bank for a piece brimming with down-to-earth acrobatics
It's several minutes past 19:30, and like a gang of naughty latecomers held up at the bar, seven youngsters dash in wearing humble t-shirts and tank-tops. Call it another bad year for makers of leotards, because plain-clothes circus is back at the Underbelly thanks to the erstwhile ensemble Gravity and Other Myths.
What people like about their show A Simple Space is that it's a human alternative to the artsy, po-faced international acts you see on tour. This lot have untrimmed beards and little beer bellies, and their act begins with something resembling a marriage counselling session. Performers topple themselves backwards in a trust-exercise which requires their colleagues to dive and catch them.
What the Aussie acrobats do, they've done for six years now, and it's certainly no hardship to see them go through the motions once again. They're mesmerising motions, after all. Human towers are erected, sinews are strained, heads are balanced on. It's possible there was also a poor woman used as a skipping rope; her body tossed around as a gangster might sling a carpeted victim into a car boot.
Engaging? Sure. But that's from someone who's in awe of people who can touch their toes. Many punters find it hard to judge what's great circus and what's merely good – and after a time, a lot of tricks and flips can start to wash over you. That's why it's good when A Simple Space gets a little bit freaky. One arresting scene sees an artiste standing on her head; her inverted legs becoming curious sniffing creatures akin to the giant spaceship-eating worm from Star Wars.
Forget the idea of 'circus school': there are few academic pretensions in A Simple Space. The troupe celebrates the trivial and earthy. Blokes are hauled up from the audience and the female performers vie to hold them aloft for as long as they can. Sweaty towels are passed from performer to performer – each burying the thing in a clammy cavity to try to screw over the next person. Embryonic personalities shine though at these moments – but a little more improv would flesh them out more.
At one point it's all eyes on the drummer/musician chap who sits in the corner. Off comes the shirt, and he plays percussion on his own bare body. Fingers are clicked frantically, thighs are brushed, and pecs are slapped until red and raw. "Stop it!" shrieks my companion, unable to watch any more. Sadistic though it is to say, there's drama here – bodily risk – and you wouldn't mind more of it.
There's little doubt Gravity and Other Myths have made a spectacle that's ideal for a night of cider-swilling on the South Bank. It doesn't offer the most insane acrobatics but it's got humour and a modern take on grotesque circus conventions of old. Towards the end the audience is invited to lob plastic balls at performers to knock them off balance. Don't rotten tomatoes look posh in 2019?