Sunday, 28 December 2014

Chapter 55: Adventures in Wonderland

"I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I've changed several times since then."
- Alice

Photo: Tommy Franzen as Ernest, Lizzy Gough as Alice
Courtesy of

"Man, those guys are crazy" said my nine year old son "When can we go and see them again?" He was referring to ZooNation and Kate Prince's hip-hop production of The Mad Hatter's Tea Party at the Royal Opera House, where "nonsense makes more sense than sense". 

This was our Christmas treat, following straight on from our annual pilgrimage to the Winter Wonderland of Somerset House, where my son and I had been skating hand-in-hand with my husband and six year old daughter round the rink. We were pretty high already. 

We'd never been to the Linbury Studio before. It's in the depths of the Opera House and as you descend the stairs there is a sense of discovering a whole new world underside. In the foyer, tables were set for tea, a trail of riddles decorated the walls, and an assortment of crazy hats hung by an empty frame, inviting funny photos. 

We took our seats and saw in the centre a model of a gothic mansion, with an air of mystery hanging around it. It made me think of the model of Hogwarts we had seen in a trip to the Harry Potter Studios recently. Not in design, but in the expectation that something extraordinary was about to happen. And it did. But you don't need to take my word for it - thanks to the recording of the live stream you can now see the *entire show* here, from around 34 minutes in:

To give you a brief overview of the story, this mansion in the North of England houses a correctional facility where a young, serious, Germanic, bespectacled psychotherapist called Ernest arrives and a whole host of characters who claim to hail from Wonderland are handed over into his care. As he examines each of his cases in turn, he is gradually drawn into their alternative space,  curiouser and curiouser, and irrevocably into Wonderland itself. Aren't we all?!

I loved this production on so many levels and Time Out describes it so well - click here for review. I saw circus inflections in the touches of tumbling, the juggling of rattles and tea-ware, and the choreographed clowning around - there were even a few pies floating around! The dancers and the band were spectacular. Vibrant, engaging, astonishing, flipping brilliant - even my six year old sat open-mouthed and enchanted the whole way through. Afterwards though, she was pretty vocal. And here's the thing: provide the right environment for children to release their imagination and see their story-telling soar.

Watching the production there was also a growing sense that maybe the different characters are all facets of our own personalities at different times - all together at once would be simply psychotic, after all. For instance, I'm the White Rabbit when relentlessly harried by the clock on the school run in term-time, the Red Queen on days when I've over-dosed on caffeine (and I want her flamingo umbrella!), the Cheshire Cat after Christmas lunch, especially when tickled behind the ear, and have already identified with Alice through the Looking Glass on these circus adventures - see post "Why a Circus Blog?". Above all, though, I feel a certain empathy with Ernest, taking time-out for a cuppa, and opening our mind to unfamiliar possibilities, even if others think we are Mad as a Hatter in the process. 

So, there you go. From a Wilde Evening in the previous post to The Importance of Being Ernest at Tea-Time. Chin-chin.

Photo: Isaac Baptiste as the Mad Hatter
Courtesy of

Note: There are so many wonderful theatre and circus spaces engaging children's story-telling. Here, though, I would like to make special mention of my very first ice-guide at Somerset House, Rosie Hudson, aka Rosie Tells Tales - check out her Wonderland at

Postscript: Zoo Nation is back 30 December 2016 - 22 January 2017 at The Roundhouse. See: - click here.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Chapter 54: The Christmas Pole Star and a Wilde Evening

"The Circus. She is a jealous bitch. She will wreck your head, wreck your home, wreck your heart, wreck your harp…"

Local Gift Shop
Local Art Gallery
These words open the trailer (see below or click here) of Belfast-based Tumble Circus. I'd been alerted to them by friends going to see them recently and found their words have resonated ever since. Immersed in circus these past six months, I see #circuseverywhere to the point where I wonder if I'm hallucinating. So I took photos to share. It's not just me, right?! There are days when it does feel as though circus has indeed wrecked my head, home, heart and harp. Amazing how a little bit of overlooked household admin can spiral into dreams of tumbling tumbleweed and partners on cyr wheels spinning out of control, while tugging at the harp-strings has been a sadly neglected practice of late. There are days when I do indeed say, Damn, the Circus! But oh, then there's the Love of it.


Nowhere gets, and celebrates, this dark humour, quite like Cabaret. So on Tuesday night, I went with Anne, my old Circus Space partner-in-crime, to the Albert Hall for dinner at Red's, where cabaret was served up with a twist of circus. The MCs for the evening were the fabulesque Red (Miss Polly Rae) and her Ruby (Reuben Kaye) last seen in Boylexe (see Chapter 34 - click here), on fire as ever with quick-draw repartee. There was comedy and a hint of sauce one the menu, and a Bad Kitty Bang Bang into the bargain, but this was Prince Albert's in Kensington, not Madame Jojo's (RIP) in Soho. Which is to say the acts were terrific, while the audience, bar the cluster of gems on the table next to us, felt a bit lacking in lustre. Anne's handstand teacher from Circus Space, Sammy Dinneen, was the incarnation of graceful strength, while the beauty of the shining Pole Star Klodi in the title picture left me breathless, both acts making the impossible seem effortless. Check out Anne's review of the evening here: "On Connections, Cabaret and Red Shoes"

Sammy Dinneen at Red's Cabaret

Watching the circus acts I was struck by the fact that here are incredibly strong, young performers, being observed by a rather more mature crowd. What would we sacrifice, I wondered, to have that strength, beauty and agility? A question that reverberated a couple of days later with a visit to the  Greenwich townhouse of Mr Dorian Gray, where the Alchemic Order lived up to their name and brought Wilde's portrait to life, quite literally (there are two Dorians).  

I have always loved the book, the brilliant  social observations and dry wit, with  the relentless gothic menace underpinning the story. In this production the audience is invited to a promenade, following the story round a series of spaces indoor and out. The whole house is given over to the spirit of Oscar Wilde and you cannot help but yield to the magic it works on you. The rose petals, candles, spices, music, satin sheets,  silk throws, peepholes and hidden spaces all frame a picture painted by a stellar cast of gothic mystery and the damning desire for impossible, beautiful, youth. See Anne's blog "Passion for all - Dorian Gray and Immersive Theatre" - click here. Despite being so carried away by the company that we missed the last train home, I feel strangely rejuvenated today. In a week when I have been questioning and challenging my own relentless pursuit of all things circus, and whether writing is not its own form of narcissism, I am both comforted, and not a little disturbed, by Lord Henry's advice to Dorian, as lethal as absinthe and alluring as opium,

"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield it."

Damn the Circus, indeed!

Tumble Circus

Note: Tonight (Saturday, 20th December) is the last showing of Alchemic Order's Dorain Gray. Still, if you've missed it, check out their website at (click here). That is an adventure in itself, and keep your eyes wide shut following @alchemicorder on Twitter, and on Facebook, for news of the return of the production next year. 

And do follow Anne's blog at (click here) and tweets @mylondonpassion. Not only does Anne know what she is talking about (she is a City of London tour guide), she is very, very funny.

Local Garden Centre

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Chapter 53: Circus for Ordinary People

Right, so the other evening I went to the first ever Scratch Night at Flying Fantastic in Battersea (who also run classes in Farringdon), where students were showcasing their own routines on hoop, static trapeze, silks, and a touch of hula. 

The event had come onto my radar as Flying Fantastic is fairly local to me and I was interested in seeing what was going on in the community. And WOW! These are not circus performers in training, but ordinary people using the space as a fitness class once a week and doing extraordinary things. Not that you'd know they are anything but circus professionals from the glitter and sequins, neon false eyelashes, silver bodysuits and spangled leggings flying around. And it was entirely appropriate that Kate, the MC for the evening, was resplendent in a ringmaster's outfit, while seeing rigging taken up and down between acts by a reindeer added a bit of festive cheer, and then some. 

Everyone was clearly having fun and relishing the opportunity to show friends and family what they'd been working so hard on all year. Splits on silks, drops on trapeze, duets on hoops, a whirring rainbow of hulas from every extremity of the body. Interestingly, before the show started, Kate asked the audience who had seen any form of circus before. There was a minimal show of hands, but the collective gasps and riotous applause throughout the evening makes me think next year the balance will swing the other way.

It was great to hear as well that Flying Fantastic are all set to roll out classes for children in the New Year, so I went over to chat to the founders, Edel and Chris, afterwards. My own children still talk frequently about their holiday workshops with Adam at Airborne Circus, (and ask when they are going again!) but at an hour and a half away, it's just not possible regularly. 

That is why I am so excited about a local community initiative, and If you need any further convincing of the benefits of circus skills for young people, click on the link below and listen to the inspiring Marcus Davey, OBE, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Roundhouse: 

Meanwhile, back at Circus Space it was our last lesson of the term and we had our own open house. This meant for Level 1 on static trapeze pairing up to put together a routine for the end of the class, and for Level 2 inviting family and friends along to watch a group routine with turns of solos and duets. I had kept very quiet about this! There wasn't any dressing up per se, but I was determined to channel the spirit of Flying Fantastic and introduce a bit of glitz, so wore a pair of dark silver leggings found in Portobello Market. Paired with a pair of suede over-the-knee boots to travel in, I felt a bit like Aladdin in a Wimbledon Panto. And it's good to have a some sort of persona when you are performing. It makes you braver, and more entertaining...hopefully!

For Level 1 then, I was paired with a guy I'd only met a handful of times, and we had half an hour to put together a routine, which meant going through Layla's list of moves we should know by now and picking of the ones we could both do, and throwing in some music.  I had a sudden craving for Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, which another member of the group luckily had on his phone. Maybe it's because circus lends itself so easily to the whole tango of love, putting the unattainable on display, just out of reach. And also simply because it's a great song. It was so much fun working with a partner, and I achieved far more than I would have done on my own. And for me there was an exquisite satisfaction, similar to dancing a tango, of matching movement and synchronising our sequence. 

Level 2 was a whole different ball game.  We popped off the trapeze in turn like synchronised swimmers to "Walking in a Winter Wonderland", although in my case that meant spinning my legs right through my arms and landing on the floor, then having to clamber up again to join the others hanging upside down clicking our fingers from side to side. A few beats swinging up to sitting, some free-style leg kicking and then we took turns as a solo or in pairs. My input by this point was utterly minimal, but I had fun marvelling at everyone else as the music moved from the festive crooning of "Twelve Days of Christmas" to Fiery Flamenco, olé! 

I got home still buzzing, and was then up til 2 in the morning trying to switch off. If that's the effect of a couple of aerial routines barely two minutes long, how on earth do proper performers ever get any beauty sleep?! Maybe that's one to ask Dorian Gray in a promenade of his townhouse in Greenwich next week (click here) ...

I have a video of my Level 1 performance. It's not perfect, but here's the thing: I look at it and I see another ordinary person trying to do extraordinary things. And they are extraordinary, for me. Looking at it I see not only where I'm at now, but a whole host of possibilities of what I might be able to do in a year's time, or even ten. The following morning I showed it to my children. My six year old daughter turned to me and said "Mum, I am just so proud of you" and that over-rides all and any cringe factor on my part "...even if you didn't do a Mermaid like we did with Airborne Circus" she went on. Ah well, you can't win them all!

I came across a beautiful quote the other day on the Facebook page of the Andalusian circus Festival Circada which captures beautifully what I think (the pretty literal translation, for what it's worth, is my own - corrections welcome!):

Existen casi tantas visiones de circo como personas. O al menos tantas visiones como personas que hayan disfrutado alguna vez en su vida de circo. Seguramente el circo que se asoma por tu cabeza no es el mismo que el juega en la mente de tu mejor amiga. Y solo existe un error posible: querer apropiarse del Circo, con mayúsculas, como si fuera solo uno, como si fuera algo privado que se puede registrar, inmatricular, meter en un marquito y decir: esto es circo, y es mío. Sueña con circo y que nadie te marque límites.

There are nearly as many visions of circus as there are people.  Or at least as many visions as people who have enjoyed circus at some point in their life. And for sure, the circus that pops into your head is not the same as the one that is at play in the mind of your best friend. There is only one possible mistake you can make: wanting to possess Circus, with a capital C, as if there were only one, as if it were something that you can own, that you can register as yours, put a little frame around it, mark out your territory, and say: this is circus, and this is mine. So dream of circus and may nobody put limits on you.

Circus, for me, is a state of mind. Anything's possible. 

As ever, London Underground on the journey home has the last word.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Chapter 52: Circus al Fresco with Ilona Jäntti

Christmas is in the air. Literally, in the form of Finnish aerialist Ilona Jäntti. She was over in the UK doing a residency of research and development at Jacksons Lane, Highgate, which had culminated in a performance at the weekend of a double-bill of Handspun and Namesake

"Handspun is a duet of aerial dance and live cello. Using just a rope, choreographed performance and music, a gentle, dreamlike piece is punctuated with the risk and danger of aerial circus."

Namesake is "inspired by two women; Lilian Leitzel, the greatest aerialist of all time, and [the other] performer Ilona Jäntti’s own great grandmother. Namesake is about strength, beauty and endurance. Ilona doesn’t come from a circus family, or even from a family of artists. Through this piece she honours her own family and her personal history with circus." 

(taken from Jacksons Lane website - click here)

I had not been able to make either performance, so the news that Ilona was to perform a 15 minute outdoor performance on Monday, at lunch-time,really did seem like a gift. Taking full advantage of the kids' last full week at school/nursery, I have to say that even an hour to myself on the Northern Line felt like a treat, and I was also looking forward to meeting an old university friend there as well. 

What I used to love about living in North London was the country feel. Within two minutes of exiting Highgate tube I found myself making my way through the woods to the Queens Wood cafe. Next to it was a children's playground that was to become the temporary stage for Ilona's aerial act. It was cold enough for me to be wearing several layers and a pair of gloves, and I wondered how anyone could grip in such conditions. But then, I had grown up hearing about my father's business trips to Helsinki, with colleagues leaping from saunas into snow-drifts, and reflected that these Finns were obviously made of sterner stuff than me, a Southern Softie. Inside the café Ilona was warming up in more ways than one, in jeans, a fairisle sweater and DM-style boots. The act was to take place in two pieces of around six minutes. That is a long time to be outdoors on a rope that is relentlessly hard-work, painful and unforgiving. So my admiration for Ilona's proposition was already sky-high, through the tree-tops. 

Residual sounds of road traffic could be heard initially, but the moment the classical music started and Ilona began to make her way across a rope bridge, any ambient noise simply dissolved into our awareness of the moment and the spectacle. Ilona used the rope to climb up a tree, winding it round herself until it was held by the grip in her mouth. Then she manoeuvred herself across a horizontal rope twisting, turning, entwining, enchanting, merging with the branches and leaves. The lines her body made as she wheeled over and hung down from the rope had a simplicity of form that complimented the natural surroundings, as did the music she had chosen to accompany the piece. I don't know how else to describe it other than an experience of ethereal grace and of fundamental re-connection to the environment.  

In the wake of (all the rage of) Black Friday and Cyber Monday, where even if you didn't buy into it, there was a sense of time revving up, here was a space at the start of the week for quiet reflection and wonder, which I'm determined to hold onto going forward. There was a nursery group watching among the onlookers, gazing open-mouthed. For a moment I dearly wished my own children were there too, but that was forgotten as soon as the performance over, when my friend and I decamped to the Woodman pub for a festive tipple. So easily swayed. Mulled cider. Who knew?! 


Saturday, 29 November 2014

Chapter 51: La Soirée

Pushing along a buggy a few years ago and struggling for breath, metaphorically-speaking, I stopped in front of a bus stop in Balham.  There, resplendent, was a poster advertising the circus coming to town. La Soirée.  The name conjured up exotic allure, the sepia tones in the picture, maybe a memory overlay, promised sultry fun. Just out of my reach, still I took a picture of it and sent it to a friend. This is right up your street, I said. Saw it last year at the Roundhouse, came the reply. Go! You'd love it! And so I did ... last night.  

La Soirée is now in the big top Spiegeltent on South Bank. Spiegel means play, right? So a play-space then, home to a mash-up of circus and cabaret acts. And come Friday night, boy, were we ready for that. And the South Bank was ready for us. The Christmas market was open and everyone was in festive mode. Mulled wine and wienerschnitzel, pints of beer and hog roast, jam-packed wooden walk-ways and fairy-lights leading like a latter-day yellow brick road all the way to the glittering Spiegeltent. Magical.

There was a bar inside the tent where we topped up with mulled wine, and then were guided to our seats by an über-charming prohibition-styled usher who also carried my booze for me, having astutely assessed the risk potential presented by my heels, the scalding drinks and the grooves in the floor. There were rows of free-seating, as ever, with a few tables dotted around, and booths at the back. The evening itself veered between moments that were laugh out loud funny, touching and simply astonishing. I was delighted to find that my man, who can be so blasé, was completely enthralled from the first to the last. I can't tell you why exactly - they don't hand out the programme until after the show for good reason - but I am itching to tell you something without giving the game away. So I've answered this conundrum with a puzzle. Below are the initials of the performers we saw. You can make sense of them if you know the show, and if you don't, hopefully you'll get the flavour, and a taste for more.

Go! You'd love it! And if you ask nicely, I'll come again with you ...

tEG: Bowlered these maidens over, gentlemen. Ripped reality. Wow.

JL:  Buckets of pizzazz and cheek, gallons of skill.

MMmmm: You deserve your own confetti, love. 

JB: Flexing more than just our laughter muscles. Geek love. 

HM: Sex on a stick, so smooth, left us feeling good. 

AT: Uncorked mellifluousness and forked tongue slayde us. A novel bedtime story...

SS&ADC: Soaring, smouldering, sexy, spell-binding and utterly compelling.  

D&F: Hypnotising routine. Science can explain how they do it, but still lost in wonder.

StBB: Fame precedes tail, one sexy bunny. 

UM: De putamadre, de verdad, mujer con cojones, agua sin gas y dos cervezas por favor.

PPC: Cohen's Clown. I will always look up to you. Hallelujah!

La Soirée is showing until 11th January, 2015.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Chapter 50: The Great Spavaldos - Virtually Circus

"So last night I was wearing a pair of goggles, clogs and a cape and pretending I was one half of a moustachioed trapeze act The Great Spavaldos and this morning I was learning all about aerial drag acts and a star turn involving a whip and a flaming newspaper over coffee with Boylexe at the BFI cafe. Welcome to my world. Virtually."

Hi, my name is Lucy, and I'm a digital immigrant. Unlike the next generation that has grown up tech-savvy, them, the digital natives, I'm treading on foreign territory, feeling my way through social media, as well as feeling my (digital) age. This was brought home to me at Jacksons Lane with The Great Spavaldos, a show from Il Pixel Rosso, a young theatre company, who use audiovisual technology to take you through a 20 minute immersive circus experience. 20 minutes. My husband was delighted. He'd last been to Jacksons Lane for Midnight Circus in the summer (click here), which he loved, but we are running on empty at the moment, and that sort of time-frame suited us just fine. 

We met at the Woodman, "quite possibly the prettiest pub in London" for a cheeky pint.  Within minutes the place, and the pint, was working its magic and soon we were chatting about moving back north of the river... Hmm, alcohol and circus. Do the two mix? I hesitated for a moment. I'd been prevented from going on a trapeze only a couple of days earlier by a large glass of red wine. But then, this would be just an illusionary experience. There's no real danger...?

Wearing headphones that gave the background story we were ushered urgently through dressing rooms, the theatre's haunted corridor (not part of the theatre narrative, just the ghost of knowledge gathered from a previous tour) and into a our very own dressing room where, shortly after our guide became the ringmaster, we morphed into those daredevil Spavaldos brothers,  from a bye-gone era of circus.  We put on a pair of video goggles that occluded all other vision and stepped into the arena. It was extremely disorientating at first, and all the more enjoyable for that. Jeez, I thought, technology has come a long way since The Lawnmower Man.  Having also grown up on the Adams family and legends of the ghostly Hairy Hand of Dartmoor, I was familiar with the concept of a ghostly guiding hand that led us round, re-orientating us. I liked that this one was a beautiful hand, soft, smooth, strong and feminine. Part of me would have liked to go it alone to explore, but the other part appreciated the irony that a disconnected hand was reinforcing an element of human connection in the digital experience. And I think that is important as the type of audience this show attracts will be, in the main, a generation familiar with likes of Punchdrunk theatre and Secret Cinema, seeking out a dynamic interaction with performers, and feeding off that energy.

Soon we were touring backstage a big top, brushing past feathered boas, and the scaled variety, preparing for the performance, taking a bow and then winging our way up to the top to the trapeze for the grand finale. It was very cleverly done. The butterflies and the dizziness were genuine. My husband wondered if I would be blasé about it, having taken trapeze classes, but no. If anything, edging my toes over the platform was a heady rush, enhanced by memories of classes past and the anticipation of ones to come. Maybe there was a smidgen of disappointment, initially, that I would be sitting on the swing, not standing, or hanging from it, but that was instantly forgotten in the beauty of the moment, which involved simply extending the legs, leaning back and soaring into the sky,  immersed in the sensory.

The whole experience made me wonder further about the global connection of circus. It came via a simple question from a Singaporean nonprofit initiative that brings circus to the community and hold the annual Bornfire Festival. They had come onto my radar via Twitter, and an allusion to involvement in projects further afield, such as in India, made me wonder openly if they had come across Circus Kathmandu (click here ) who rescue children being trafficked in circus and give voice to their experience using their own circus language. To hear their stories in their own words  click here and check out their video on the One Percent Club fundraising page. 

When Circus Kathmandu had finally made it to the UK in summer, they received a spontaneous standing ovation in the Pyramid tent at Glastonbury. Bornfire wondered if I had seen them perform? Well, no, but thanks to videos and reading reviews like that of Kate Kavanagh in the Circus Diaries (click here for her review of their show "Swagatam"), I felt I had been there, to a certain extent. Not quite the same, but the next best thing. Now, with the likes of Il Pixel Rosso's technology and flair for spectacle, maybe one day we'll be able to engage more fully with performances on the other side of the world. Imagine. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Chapter 49: Dining out with Crashmat Collective

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” 
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber

Are you a daydreamer? Chances are if you are reading this blog you like a bit of escapism. I certainly do. Taking up circus skills for me has been my way of carving out a dream space, and a natural progression from (over?!)exposure to the phenomena of the immersive experience, whether it be in performance art, theatre, cinema or circus, that has been evolving over the past couple of decades. I love how the fourth wall of the audience tumbles down, and the way boundaries between reality and spectacle blur and dissolve. There is a sense that you are connecting with "the purpose of life". Or simply connecting. Well, anyway, I was curled up on the sofa the other evening watching Ben Stiller as the ultimate fantasist in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and fell asleep half-way through. Before I knew it I was dreaming of having an affair with my own husband in a sequence straight out of Dirty Dancing, and I'm holding Crashmat Collective mostly to blame. Make that thank.

Crashmat Collective is a dynamic, young circus theatre company based in Wales, supported among others by their friends at NoFit State Circus (see Chapter 9 - click here), with whom many in the cast have worked in the past. They are currently touring with their show Façade, where the waiters who serve up the three-course meal are also the performers, acting out a succession of Mittyesque scenarios. It brings new definition to the term "holding down two jobs at once", and it's a surreal dynamic as they flip between the roles seamlessly, fusing the two realities together.  It also makes voyeurs of us all. 

Now, the last time I heard the words "immersive dining experience" was when I was invited to the Fawlty Towers experience, so imagine my amusement when we turn up to find our waitress introduced as Polly (Laura Moy). But there the resemblance ends.  Thoroughly efficient, we were each given an acrobatic colour-coded badge to distinguish the meat- from the (waldorf) salad-eaters.  The maitre d' is Claude (George Fuller), who has "impeccable","comic timing", "consummate" and "CLOWN" written all over him, and has you laughing already as you enter the restaurant space. And what a space too, we are seated at tables of ten in the intimacy of the round at The Albany in Deptford. There were six in our party, and while we chatted amiably before and after the performance to the two other couples we didn't know, for the main all conversation was suspended as there was so much to take in all around. 

We soon find out what is going on behind the scenes in Claude's restaurant for the gossip is dished out along with the dinner as we are made privy to the waiters' innermost thoughts.  As well as quips about the customers, and a subtext of cheeky banter,  there is an ongoing narrative of longing. Stories of frustrated desire, or simmering anger that take flight in the circus sequences. There is something very Tennessee Williams about it, which is funny because the theme to True Blood is used at one point, conjuring up the southern smoulder encapsulated in the uber-sexy belle Jolene, aka Anna Sandreuter (co-director with Paul Evans), who plays the vamp to perfection in her signature red heels, all hips and hula.

Andy Davies as Kade
Laura Moy as Polly

At the other end of the spectrum is Alice Ellerby's naive Rose whose desire is sublimated into her love for her pet gecko, Patrick Swayze, and whose Baby-style character doesn't quite know how to be sexy. But then she hits the cloud (the swing that's kind of a cross between a slack-rope and a trapeze), and literally takes off. Cue Dirty Dancing routine, with the rest of the cast in a choreographed chorus. Rose has "The Time of My Life", as do we watching her blossom, as though incarnating the sexual empowerment and liberation of circus. And how we cheered. 

Andy Davies is the war veteran Kade whose backstory hits home, powered by his turn on straps and hand-balancing. Brice, (Kevin McIntosh) was so effortless on cordon lisse that I forgot the involuntary shudder from the prospect of pain that normally happens when I see a rope hanging, and we laughed at the comedy of Libby (Gemma Creasey) and Brice's struggle for managerial power worked out on aerial hoop.  

In addition to the beauty, strength and choreography of the circus routines, special mention must go to Laura Moy. It's hard to know which we found more impressive: her skill on the Chinese pole or her verbal dexterity. The rhythm and imagery of her poetry - "I ate a pencil and vomited up the lead" - knocked us breathless.  

While the evening was an engaging, sumptuous and imaginative feast for the senses, we were left with one lingering mystery ... what happened to the gecko, pet?! 

Note: Façade will be showing at the Arts Depot, North Finchley, on Friday 21st November.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Chapter 48: Barnum the Musical, encore!

Come Follow the Band

"Staying home living day by day, may be safe but it can't be duller,
Seeing things only black and grey, when the world is alive with colour.
Doing just what your neighbours do, maybe wise but it ain't so clever.
Every man has a dream or two. Let 'em go and they're gone forever."
Barnum, "Out There"

I was toying with the idea of giving up the blog last week. Juggling family life while carving out this circus space feels like a precarious balancing act at times. So I took myself off to a friend's couch. A friend who has multiple children, trains at Circus Space and guides people for a living, albeit around London. Someone who I could count on to understand, and, crucially, to talk me out of it. I'm clever like that. And that's what she did, with words of wisdom worthy of circus impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum himself.

I love the idea of a Barnum and Bailey Circus and the whole Big Top scene.  What's the attraction? The glamour. The razzle-dazzle. The sexiness. The laughter. The jaw-dropping feats that make you gasp in awe "That's impossible!" or "I could never do that!" and then, in my case, comes the siren call of that still, small voice inside piping up "but I'd like to give it a go...". The Big Top for me represents a space to think big and go for it. 

Funnily enough though, I never went to the circus as a child. One of my older siblings had once been so scared by clowns that by the time I came along, number six, my mother had sworn never again. Maybe that forbidden fruit of clowning is why I am so partial to a spot of it myself. Anyway, one day, back in the 80s, BBC1 screened the musical "Barnum" starring Michael Crawford, showman and stunt-meister par excellence, and I was immediately captivated, from the very first catapault.

The musical tells of Barnum's life with his beloved wife Charity, a patchwork of honest browns, taupes and gentle tones who both contrasts and ultimately complements his own glitzy, vibrant brand of humbug. The show charts Barnum's career moving from the world of exhibiting curiosities in museums to going on tour, the acts he picks up, including the beautiful Swedish Nightingale, who he really picks up (and then drops again), to Barnum's mind-numbing stint in a clock factory at his wife's behest, his foray into politics and his eventual return home to all things circus, with his pal Mr Bailey.

We saw the show twice last year at the beginning and end of the run at Chichester Festival Theatre, which I presume was producer Cameron Macintosh's trial run for a West End transfer, and now this year on tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Each time the children have enjoyed the music, the colour and the spectacle, but essentially we have seen three very different shows.   

Trailer for Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre:

The first time round Chichester Festival Theatre was being revamped and we saw the production in a temporary construction that from the outside looked like a big top tent. Perfect.  There was a slated, wooden walkway with lights leading up to it and a variety of stands outside selling old-fashioned humbugs (the mint kind) and other transports of delight.  It was summer and there was very much a festival atmosphere. In the performance itself there were fire-eaters, tumblers, acrobats on silks, jugglers, and my favourite, the aerialists spinning umbrellas over the waltzing lovers (see trailer). It was simply enchanting. It happened to be press-night as well, and it was evident that the poe-faced critics sitting in the row in-front were not going to be huge fans. The lead, Christopher Fitzgerald had obviously been giving it his all in the run-up and had lost his voice, and he didn't make it across the tightrope. However that disappointment just made his Barnum all the more fallible, and we rooted for him. His is the Barnum who makes mistakes and picks himself up, he is the grafter on the make, the cheeky chappy, the fighter with chutzpah. And that's why we went back at the end of the run. In the second show we saw, same location, the songs had been cut, along with some of the circus performance sequences and it was altogether more streamlined. Christopher Fitzgerald was on fire and triumphed on the tightrope. How we cheered. 

We needed cheering up ourselves the third time round. My husband was unable to join the kids and I at the last minute. Still, we knew the score - quite literally, actually, as the kids know every song backwards - and the moment we stepped over the threshold to the theatre, the show worked its charm. 

Cutting it fine as ever, as we ran down the stairs to the stalls we crossed paths with circus performers coming up.  They instantly engaged with the children, making jokes, throwing them balls, and a cute aside in my direction was an instant pick-me-up. We were laughing all the way to our seats. When we got there the fun and games continued. One juggler had my son throwing clubs, the girls got my daughter involved in a hoop trick that very nearly worked, together with ribbon twirling. "Honey, we need to get you into a costume" they told her, and my daughter's face just beamed. Priceless. 

The production in Wimbledon had a much smaller performance space than in Chichester, and the circus skills showcased were condensed, but the interaction beforehand really drew the audience in. The kids loved the staging of the Tiny Tom Thumb, peeking out from an oversized armchair, dancing among the towering Bearskin Guards on stilts, and the marvellous Jumbo the Elephant, all legs and a trunk, which this time round squirted water at the audience. For me, music is at the heart of the show and the live band, walking among the audience at the beginning of the second half, was a joy. Brian Conley in the lead was a consummate entertainer and a credible, confident Barnum, not a step out of place. His experienced Barnum has been through life, and is resigned to the knocks he's had along the way. His wife, Charity Barnum, was simply lovely, and a surreptitious wave to the kids at the end in the final bow meant they were floating on air the whole way home. Magic. Again. Encore! 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Chapter 47: Circus skills are good for the kids - scout's honour!

I love a cheeky pun, so the page 3 headline in the newspaper was always going to catch my eye. Only we're talking The Times, not The Sun. 

"Were you ever a Scout? I'm a frayed knot"

Well, boom, boom! I read on. The article registered outrage among certain quarters about the decline of traditional "relevant" skills like knot-tying in the scouts association, and by extension the girl guides, in favour of new activity skills badges "covering areas such as youth work, circus skills [...] and street sports such as skateboarding". Children's author GP Taylor declared: "This just shows what a pathetic society we are becoming. Baden-Powell will be spinning in his grave. He would be outraged by this."

While I agree there is often pathos involved in clowning around, it's surely wrong to write off circus skills, and the like, as pathetic. The circus skills I've come across require courage, trust, focus and hard graft, and you even learn how to tie knots (with your feet, on the rope, if you're lucky!). They also require physical stamina, core strength, and, dare I say it, mindfulness, something that competitive team sports at school don't really develop. 

Then, that evening I stumbled across one of the most engaging and inspirational TED talkers it's ever been my joy to watch. The talk was given by tightrope legend Philippe Petit, subject of the Oscar-winning documentary "Man on a Wire", and had been shared by Airborne Circus the same evening that Nik Wallenda was crossing blindfolded between towers in Chicago, buffeted by winds of up to 25 m.p.h.

As Petit was describing his adventurous childhood he struck me as a regular Boys' Own hero, encapsulating the spirit of Baden-Powell's own rhetoric: “Where is there a boy to whom the call of the wild and the open road does not appeal?"  Petit progressed from magic tricks aged 6, to juggling and then to the high wire as a teen, thanks to an enterprising, curious spirit.  And it is this coupling of common-sense and ingenuity that is be the badge of honour of any true scout.  You should hear for yourself how he constructed his very first tightrope:

Baden-Powell considered that fun and games had an intrinsic moral value to them, and I am sure from that stand-point as well he would thoroughly appreciate the final story in the TED talk, where Petit describes how the stringing a tightrope between Israel and Palestine built a bridge in more ways than one. 

So if Baden-Powell really is "spinning" I'm sure he's just showing off a few new-found circus tricks beyond the grave. Heaven, really. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Chapter 46: Trick or treat?!

So let me tell you about last night. It was Halloween. While a couple of glasses of red wine touched lips in the hall, I donned a mask and slid into the night on the arm of a gentleman in a black velvet frock coat and silk satin shirt. The entertainment that followed involved a naked torso, a number of threesomes and plenty of whip-cracking. Eyes Wide Shut yet?! Welcome to my world. Trick or treating with the family, then an evening at the Moscow State Circus on Clapham Common. That's how we roll in Nappy Valley. 

We arrived at Clapham Common to find friends waiting at the entrance. The children raced around together in sheer joy and delight at the sight of the colourful circus tent, only stopping for popcorn, thankfully the salted variety after the sugar rush that is trick or treat. The doors opened and we flooded in to the two-tiered unreserved seating area, the majority being red plastic chairs, with a few rows in front of velvet-cushioned seats. I imagined the latter being filled back in the day with Kremlin officials and their families. You see, maybe it's the name "Moscow State Circus" but there is a sense of walking into some sort of socialist time warp (it's just a jump to the left...) back in the 80s. Maybe it's the bombastic music, the costumes, the lighting, the roller-skates ... even the audience clapping at the end is orchestrated by the performers to keep a steady beat so that no specific act is singled out by particularly fervent applause. We are all in this together, comrades.  

In the centre of the ring was a rather kitsch Venus de Milo statue. A replica from the real "Gorky Park" - also the name of the show - maybe? The show title brought to mind that 80s phenomena The Scorpions who sang "I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change".  The song celebrated the tide turning with the fall of the Berlin Wall (25th anniversary in November, guys), and the period of Glasnost and Perestroika that it heralded it. It was a big hit in Germany for sure. I know this because I was on a exchange trip there at the time, and the memory of a fortnight of teenagers earnestly singing about "the children of tomorrow" still haunts me. Still, I wondered at the statue's function, other than ornamental, until in stumbled a man with a plank, in a stripey top and a beret. Within seconds he had toppled the statue and was trying to piece it back together, this king of slapstick, Monsieur Val Defun, ouch la la! My son nudged me, delighted "I think we've found our clown, Mum." 

The first serious act was handstands. Now, the description "handstands" really wouldn't sell it to me.  But luckily the audience is invited to take (and share on social media) photos.  So I did. Here you go - gratuitous shot of a naked torso.  Only it's not gratuitous, not really. I took the picture out of pure (as the driven snow, honest guv) admiration for sheer strength and poise. I still cannot quite believe how long he held the positions. My son kept nudging me "Wow, just wow, Mum, can you believe this?"   And that was pretty much what happened the whole way through the show - we were open-mouthed in wonder at the skill and stamina of the performers.  There were the the jugglers tossing balls every which way, even from upside down on a pole, a dream of red satin gracing the air on a neck-loop, a scantily-clad triumvirate spinning on an aerial wheel, dizzying hula-hooping, soaring sommersaults through the air and captivating catches on trapeze, ("don't try that at home, will you Mum?!"), all set to anthems that if they weren't straight out of James Bond, like Live and Let Die, surely should be. The kids loved the Kozak whip-crackers, especially as the act subverted their expectation, as initially presented, that the man was in charge and the women was just his sidekick, and, when her skirt was whipped off, Mummy here thought it was a moment of pure Bucks Fizz Eurovision. The kids had to watch through their hands the "acrobatic soldiers"tumble off the Russian swing, while for me it was the roller-skating threesome doing staggeringly speedy tricks on a tiny platform.

The children's all-time favourite part of the show, though, was watching one of their own perform - a boy, earlier in the evening "picked" from the crowd, who at the end was dressed as a mini-me Defun, speeding round on a unicycle and whipping up the audience. The cast isn't huge by any standard, which made the variety and scope of their acts all the more impressive, and I felt rather gutted for these astonishing performers giving it their all, second show of the evening, to a half-full auditorium. Maybe it's because it's Halloween, but I for one was haunted by the empty seats. Then again, the programme was out-of-date, selling at only a couple of quid (reduced from £5) as they've run out of the current edition. That made me laugh. Looks like demand does outstrip supply after all. Good luck to them. 

Happy Families at the Moscow State Circus

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Chapter 45: Circus Family Show "The Party" at Jacksons Lane

"Mum, I dreamed no-one came to my party."

A child's worst nightmare, a birthday party without any friends. And in the chaos of the start of a new school year, invites were going out with less than two weeks notice, which accounts for my son's underlying anxiety. In the event, though, we had a good two dozen friends to "the best party ever, thanks" (a game of footie, a slice of pizza, and cake, lots of cake), phew! 

"My Cake!"
Still, my (now) 9 year old son was more than a little predisposed to empathise with Kaveh Rahnama's character in "The Party" this afternoon at Jacksons Lane, (Highgate) who takes this premise of a no-show at a party, and then deals with it. Entertainingly. The presents are stacked, there is a cake to drool over, and people do turn up, but they are strangers, not friends of the birthday boy. And they want to nick his cake. "My Cake!" There is a girl who can fold up into a birthday parcel, a zany Gallic acro-cyclist and a funky chicken (surreal doesn't quite cut it), each swiping gashes of gateau, in their own inimitable, guilty fashion, and chaos ensues. These uninvited guests, though, while cheeky, ultimately work together to put everything right, and the show is a real gem about consideration for others and the joy of friendship. A good life lesson to children - well, here's hoping...

The 45 minutes sped by, though at times suspended like the acrobalancers in a game of musical statues. It was a colourful production and the music rocked. "Fly Me to the Moon" kicked off the party (as it did as the first dance at our wedding), there were party anthems aplenty and a fair few nods to the adults in the audience, when conjuring up Paul Newman on a bicycle in Butch Cassidy,  for example, or a great (clean-cut, pre-watershed) Dirty Dancing sequence. 

The circus skills held us spellbound. I loved Tamzen Moulding's dextrously cheeky splits as she slides down to pick off the cherry from the cake (don't challenge her to bobbing for apples come Halloween, you'll lose), the stunningly choreographed interactive juggling between Kaveh and Ed Stephen (and furthermore, anyone who can convincingly breakdance in a chicken suit gets my vote) and francophone Alice Allart's astonishing bike tricks, which left us á bout de souffle, quite frankly. Circus does that to you, you know - leaves you breathless, that is. The anticipation of jaw-dropping feats, like the three-high human tower, is exquisitely unbearable, and it delights me to see my children similarly enthralled. So there was laughs all the way through, and whoops from the audience. What impressed me, though, was not just the physicality of the comedy, but the way the company managed to convey the narrative to children, even those as very young as my toddler, who sat up enchanted, clapping and drum-rolling on her knees (at the right moments), letting out "uh-oh" at the escalating calamities, and giggling throughout. 

However, despite the laughs and light-heartedness, it was by no means a sugar-coated, saccharine affair. The boy who never wins at party games, the girl who's never had a birthday, engaged the children's sympathy,  and struck a chord. So much so, that when the performers announced they were going to play a game of pass the parcel among the audience, my heart sank. It took me back to a childhood of always making sure the birthday girl won at parties, except at my own, when I would forever pass on my turn for our guests. FHB (Family Hold Back) was hard-wired into our DNA at home. Hence, perhaps, my son immediately nudged me, saying "we won't even get to hold the parcel, will we?" No, I assured him, managing expectations. And I reminded my daughter "remember, it's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts." The lamest phrase ever in the parental handbook still comes in handy at times like these. But the cast were on top of it, and among the children, ensuring every child came into contact with a parcel and so touched their dream. There were treats in the wrapping when the music stopped, which was sweet (thought the toddler who lucked out with a lollipop), but the bottom line was that at the centre, for the Birthday Boy, there wasn't a present at all. By this point the kids felt for him so keenly they were all for leaping on stage and giving him a hug to make him feel better. Touching. 

Afterwards the children were delighted to come across "The Actors" (as they breathed, in hallowed terms).  These guys had created the magic, after all, they are like wizards to little muggles. "Is that really you?"  My son wondered at Kaveh, minus the signature red bow-tie. My elder daughter (aged 6) was straight in there explaining the principles of colour-coding in Barbie's dream-house to the ever-patient Ed the Equable (for the record, she is equally at home talking Star Wars and Minecraft). As for my younger daughter (2½) she was, as ever, creating merry havoc all over the place, and I ended up on my hands and knees with a packet of baby wipes scrubbing melting Calippo ice-cream pellets out of the carpet of Jacksons Lane foyer until my tea had gone cold. Madcap party? I should hire her out. Jacksons Lane, please note, she's a class act.

Alice Allart, Tamzen Moulding, Ed Stephen, Kaveh Rahnama and Cake