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Review: Bianco (Southbank Centre)

NoFit State Circus bring their show to the South Bank for Christmas

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

NoFit State Circus, the company behind this breathless tangle of a show, is a contrary beast. They are one of the only contemporary circuses still to maintain the traditional travelling lifestyle – putting up their tent themselves, living, working and touring together as a small village – yet their content is unapologetically progressive. With an electrifying (and exceptionally flexible) band throwing out punk rock, blues, folk and more, the performers run riot – like a gaggle of wayward vagabonds who have broken into a Big Top in the middle of the night. There are circus acts, theatre, poetry, dance and some beautiful design elements. But while the show's boundary-pushing intentions are exciting, the practicalities often make for frustrating viewing.

The show is billed as a promenade performance, and in the opening scene, when a pair of performers on rope swings soar and dangle in the tent's rafters, the ground-level perspective certainly increases the feeling of vertiginous peril. But space restrictions mean that the show's ushers can do little more than shuffle spectators back and forth by a few feet between each act. Eventually this becomes a hindrance to the dramatic pacing rather than an opportunity get in amongst the action.

The standing set-up also causes the show's biggest practical problem: poor sight lines. I found myself at the back of the crowd on a number of occasions and, as a result, missed a good few sections of the show. Some weren't vital – much of what happens on the floor is filler while the next act is set up in the air or on the rigging that hugs the tent's circumference. But while the show eschews a real narrative – a refreshing change after the many crow-barred attempts in other circus and cabaret shows I've seen – these interludes do provide some characterisation of our riotous revellers. Other sections I missed were (I gathered from the whoops and gasps) extremely impressive.

However, if you're expecting the kind of death-defying, mind-bending feats one might find at Cirque de Soleil, you're in the wrong place – a view I suspect NoFit State would themselves share. There is much skill on display – a back-flipping tightrope artist and a contortionist balancing multiple wine glasses on her limbs were two crowd favourites – but many of the acts are variations on the same aerial acrobatics. The show's wow factor is to be found in its aesthetics and use of visual metaphor. From performers spinning inside clear plastic boxes fringed with crystal tassles that fan out like the tentacles of a sparkling jellyfish, to a sole man suspended motionless among a snowstorm, the show is most affecting when the riot stops and we are allowed to simply marvel at its beauty.

And for all of its difficulties, there is one more feat that is a pleasure to behold – the company's unshakeable bond. Their implicit trust is seen time and again but, most beguilingly, in their ingenious human pulley system, which ditches motors for human bodies used as counterweights. As one performer dives to the floor, the partner he is attached to soar into the rafters.

This sort of ingenuity is at the heart of what NoFit State does. And it's hard not to admire them for it. But a few traditional practicalities wouldn't go amiss next time.

Bianco runs at the Big Top at the Southbank Centre until 22 January.

Running time is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes including an interval.

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