An Appreciation: CIRCUS 1903

Theatre requires tension. And you certainly get your fair share of tension in Circus 1903, although not of the usual theatrical kind. An at first quaint-seeming idea reveals itself to be a circus more about skill than razzle-dazzle in the Barnum and Bailey mould, and is all the better for it. Made more relatable, this is a true family show in which the kids are fully included.

The collection of acts are well curated. Acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, aerial artists are all well-represented and interspersed with turns by the ringmaster who does several bits with the children in the audience, who are all treated with fun and respect and heart. The much-anticipated section featuring the elephants (or puppets thereof) brings much ooh-ing from the youngsters, but I dare anyone of any age to look at them without being swept along by the grace and power of their skilfully-observed movements. The kids (of all ages) were enchanted.

Comedy, magic, grace and agility were all spotted cannily and given their chance to dazzle the almost full-house at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The whole thing runs just under two hours including an interval, with the acts being not so overlong as to outstay their welcome. It is interesting to look at, the music is suitably melodramatic and potent, and the sense of audience involvement is genuine. Although I haven’t been to a circus in over forty years, this show revived a child-like wonder at the skill and daring of these unique people who have honed their life’s work into a four-minute act. Rather like the long-lost days of variety, it felt good to experience those specialists who had all but disappeared, in a theatrical environment that didn’t overwhelm them as individuals.

If you want to remember the feeling of being a kid, no matter what your current age, get yourself along to the Royal Festival Hall by Sunday 5th January. Or have to wait for their undoubted return next Christmas!

CIRCUS 1903 runs at the Royal Festival Hall until Sunday 5th January. Information and tickets here

Theatre FootNotes for December 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

THE WIND OF HEAVEN by Emlyn Wiliams – Finborough Theatre.

You can always rely on the tiny Finborough Theatre to bring out an unusual play for its Christmas slot. Although you can see why they were drawn to this interesting exploration of the search for faith by key 20th-century writer Emlyn Williams, sadly the play shows its age and struggles to engage.

Set in 1856, the small Welsh village of Blestin has turned away from God since a disaster swept away all its young people 11 years earlier. Dilys Parry, widowed recently by the Crimean War is visited by a money-minded circus owner and his assistant who have heard rumours of a “little man” who produces “music in the air”. The only youngster in the village, the son of Parry’s maid, is identified. He has something about him which suggests he is special, and the villagers come to believe him to be a spiritual figure, apparently confirmed when he pushes back the wave of cholera which imperils the village.

It’s a complex story, and I feel sure that written at the end of World War Two as it was, there was a lot more need in audiences for hope and a general willingness to embrace the spiritual elements of this story, with so many people having experienced direct loss in tragic circumstances who may have read its messages as cathartic. However now, 75 years later, in our modern, less religious world, its power is greatly diminished. Your reception of the piece will also depend upon your own belief and faith, if you have any. Personally I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief, but I still enjoyed the ideas and the poetry of Williams writing.

The production uses sound and lighting to good effect but despite the best efforts of the cast, who all work hard and with the utmost conviction,  the show remains earthbound.

MARTHA, JOSIE AND THE CHINESE ELVIS by Charlotte Jones – Park Theatre (Park 90).

Josie’s tired. Tired of the Bolton winter. Tired of looking after daydreaming daughter Brenda-Marie. Tired of working as a dominatrix to make ends meet. Too tired to celebrate turning forty. But her favourite client Lionel insists on a birthday party and, knowing Josie’s a huge Elvis fan, invites a very special guest. Just as hips start swinging, somebody no-one expected arrives and skeletons come tumbling out of the closet…

Written in 1999, Charlotte Jones’ play has not been seen in London before. This could be because it’s rather an unwieldy piece, very much a game of two very different halves. The first act is short but drags towards its end – superficially saucy, with flimsy characters, faux naughtiness and a soap-y first act curtain: but then the longer second act asks us to take it much more seriously- which is difficult. What also surprised me is that the play feels extremely dated, far more so than its twenty years.

It was also regrettable that the free cast sheet handed out to audiences did not include any cast or technical biographies, which could (to my mind) have been easily accommodated on the reverse of the single sheet.

THE TYLER SISTERS by Alexandra Wood – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Spanning several decades in the lives of three sisters, this looks like a very ambitious play which presents about 30 short snapshot- scenes of significant years in the three siblings’ lives from teenagers to retirement. The audience sees how their characters and situations change across the years through the oft-encountered lifetime issues- parenthood, children, divorce, sexuality, middle age, loss, conflict and retirement amongst others.

It’s an interesting idea but sadly, with the time that is spent establishing each new situation and then the reasons for the changes, there is rarely much time left to delve into the actual characters, so for all its two-hour length it (ironically) feels sketchy. In its ambitious breadth it sacrifices depth. The actors all do what they can, giving interesting performances- they work hard throughout the show and they are rarely offstage; however as a non-sibling myself (if that has any bearing upon my view) I felt this show difficult to engage with, or to care about these three people.

ESCAPE FROM PLANET TRASH by Ginger Johnson – The Pleasance

An adult queer/drag panto. It did what you would expect it to do, and the audience had fun. David Cumming (from SpitLip) and Lavinia CoOp (ex-Bloolips) were featured less frequently than I personally would have liked, these two performers being the reason for my visit to the show.

An Appreciation: MONKEY BARS

What we become as adults often has its roots in who we were as children. For MONKEY BARS, award-winning writer Chris Goode interviewed seventy young children on a variety of topics. He then took those interviews and carefully crafted a script which presents their words – but as spoken (for this production) by performers from the Southwark Playhouse Elders Group.

Adults playing children has been seen before in theatre, but what makes this special and interesting is that the children’s words are spoken by adults portraying adults in an adult’s world; in a bar, at an interview, on the psychiatrist’s couch, even on the Great British Bake Off. The tensions thus created between words, actions and situations can often be both entertaining, intriguing and illuminating.

As these mature performers speak the children’s uncluttered, playful and uninhibited dialogues, adopting both the vocabulary and the speech patterns of their young voices, in retaining their natural accents they have added yet another layer of tension which intrigues still further.

These young alternative viewpoints are sometimes startling. Children describe adults as loud and angry, and themselves as quiet. Anger comes up several times; never more movingly than the child who bounces a tennis ball against the wall in their room to try to dispel anger. “Does it work?”, asks an offstage voice. The longest pause, followed by a quiet “sometimes..”. The engagement in the audience was palpable.

Another character says “When you’re a child you don’t do too much thinking because you’re living”. Sometimes clarity and truth spoken so casually just turns around and slaps you in the face. Here, of course, with the added poignancy of being spoken by someone in their advancing years. It’s a useful reminder for us all to make every day count, whatever our age.

MONKEY BARS succeeds in bringing moments of insight into differences and similarities across the decades. Just as importantly, with this production by the Elders Company, it is another example of theatre’s increasing inclusivity – reaching out to welcome and include those who may not otherwise have had the confidence to engage and create. Southwark Playhouse has just reason to be proud of the success of their community engagements. The entire company, who had obviously worked hard, threw themselves into the production with gusto. The careful direction of Toby Clarke helped bring out both the loud and soft moments of the material and kept the pacing balanced both for the funnier sections, and the more intense passages.

As Lyn Gardner was saying so well in The Stage newspaper just last week, the arts show their relevance when they embrace diversity and ever-greater inclusivity; this project is a significant contribution to show older performers that not only do they matter, but also that they can collaborate to create work of a standard that both deserves -and rewards- an audience.

MONKEY BARS played on Monday 16th December at Southwark Playhouse

Read my Theatre Preview roundup for London’s Barbican Life magazine (Winter 2019/20 issue)

If you are a resident of the Barbican Estate in London, you may already have seen my regular theatre preview articles in the excellent quarterly BARBICAN LIFE magazine, covering all the exciting and innovative theatre productions staged in the next three months at the world-renowned Barbican Centre.

If you haven’t, then please click on the link to go directly to the theatre preview article here. Enjoy!

Time Travel Theatre: Panto Preparations in 1948

With the pantomime season now in full swing, let’s journey back to a time when pantomimes opened on Christmas Eve and the biggest, like those at the London Palladium, ran until the following Easter.

In this short film from the BBC Archives, we see preparations of props, scenery and costumes, together with some rehearsal footage of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK presented at the Wimbledon Theatre by legendary pantomime and ice-show impresario Tom Arnold.

Enjoy the film, which you can see here