Review: Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine (Roundhouse)

Pirates of the Carabina opens this year’s CircusFest with slightly disappointing results

 Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine
Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine

What’s in a name? A lot in this case. Pirates of the Carabina is a corker of a company moniker. The young British circus troupe came to attention with its 2013 debut, Flown – a skittish, stop-start riff on stage failures – but watching its second show, several years in development, it’s hard not to shake the suspicion they’ve been held hostage by that epithet. It would be criminal to let a pun that good go to waste, but there’s not a lot to show for it here: no substance, little style and a skillset that comes up short. Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine is, frankly, a bit of a shambles – and a dull one at that.

This is a big year for British circus – the art-form’s 250th anniversary – so it’s laudable that the Roundhouse has handed a homegrown company the headline slot at its biennial spring CircusFest. The main space is usually reserved for offbeat international troupes: Australia’s Company 2, Finland’s Racing Horse Company or the pan-African outfit Cirque Mandingue – all of them idiosyncratic and innovative. Handing the space to an emerging collective, pushing that company to scale their work up a notch, is a brave and generous gesture – even if it backfires.

Because backfire it does – and boringly. With their marriage of live music and aerial acts, a mash up between pop gig and big top, Pirates of the Carabina ought to fit right in at the Roundhouse. Instead, despite a spidery steel climbing frame sprawling over the stage, they struggle to fill either the cavernous space or a cavernous two hours. Yawning gaps open up between acts. Apparatus takes an age to set up.

That might be forgivable were the set pieces strong, but director James Williams can’t find any coherence. Performers in dressing-up box costumes – a showgirl and a city slicker, a chocks-away pilot and hipster in yellow pants and pork pie hat – dangle from their ankles as if orbiting in space. A writer drums away on a typewriter, an aerialist tangles herself up in a tassle, an angel takes flight in white silks. It takes 20 minutes to earn its first gasp, Eric McGill backflipping his way onto the trapeze, but by relying on a succession of aerial routines – ropes follow ring follows ropes – it’s all rather repetitive. Too often mohawked rigger Barnz Munz is the most eyecatching thing onstage, springing up and down with tiggerish glee.

It takes a long, long time to clock that the Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine in question is – or, at least, might be – the city; the penny finally dropping deep into the second half with a blast of urban traffic, and it’s not until the very end that the central steel scaffold registers as a tower block. That finally makes sense of Jack Rees’ cat food-eating loner and Seren Corrigan’s boozy next door neighbour, who, in one wince-inducing sequence, struggles with a rickety staircase. As Ellis Grover’s anxious hipster hobo carves out his own space on the tightrope, it seems that all that flying represents people finding their freedom: be it in creativity, love, booze or books. This show feels like anything but.

Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine runs at the Roundhouse until 15 April.