Edinburgh review: Circa: Humans (Underbelly Circus Hub)

The Australian circus troupe test the limits of human strength and flexibility in their Edinburgh Fringe show

© Pedro Grieg

This Australian circus troupe go back to basics in a show that celebrates the human body. Except it’s hardly basic – these are astonishing performers at the top of their game, and a bare stage is all that's needed to prove just what incredible feats human beings are capable of.

In the early scenes of Yaron Lifschitz’s show, the ten acrobats throw themselves around, bodies slamming into the floor, tumbling, spinning and sliding, while faces remain blank. This is loss of control staged with total control. They hurl each other about as well – sometimes, with a dangerous, muscular violence; at other times, in a tender, almost romantic embrace that suddenly twists, flips, spins apart. They seem to not only jump over each other, but through each other.

Although there’s a relentless cheery Irish reel for the first lengthy sequence, Humans can be a coolly distant show, a display of physical skill rather than heart – there’s no character or story here, no real outreach to the audience. The exception, perhaps, is a scene where a man moves around a female performer as if she’s a doll: glossy and blank, she flops completely, unless he walks her on his feet, or bends her into position. And my god, the contorted positions she can bend into. The flexibility and contortions on display in this show are so astonishing, you soon start forgetting what the human body normally looks like.

But it’s not a humourless or po-faced production – Circa prove quite happy to send up their own astonishing bodies. One sequence stages the whole cast’s frustrated inability to lick their own elbow. It leaves you itching to have a go, although if this lot can’t, it really must be impossible …

Elsewhere it’s adrenaline-pumping stuff: all around the auditorium, hands fly up to mouths as hearts threaten to leap out of them. There are gasps and rounds of applause every few minutes; the hit rate here is sky high, reflected in the sell-out, all-ages audience.
We witness human jump rope, where performers skip over a spinning body. A kind of extreme leapfrog ramps up until a woman is walking across a row of men’s head, then another curls herself into a C and rolls over them. At the top of human pyramids three stories high, one woman balances on one hand while perched on a man’s head; on another occasion, a woman does the splits up there. There’s an inverted pyramid where a man, neck-muscles bulging, supports the weight of five people.

The music skips about, from gypsy-ish jauntiness to twitchy, moody electronica to Joanna Newsom’s "Does Not Suffice" – not something I ever expected to see circus performed to, but which serenely soundtracks a poised, stately finale. Costumes are simple too – just lycra shorts in autumnal colours and black mesh tops. But Circa prove they don’t need adornment: these strong human bodies are quite majestic enough.

Circa: Humans runs at the Underbelly Circus Hub until 26 August at 7pm .

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