Saturday, 10 January 2015

Chapter 57: Proteus Theatre's Circus "Rapunzel"

"Ouch! Mum! Stop! You just have no idea what it feels like to be me!" declared my daughter, as I attempted to unravel the birds' nest in her hair that had materialised overnight. Loving the irony (knot!) we were getting ready to drive down to Rogate in Hampshire to see Proteus Theatre's touring production of Rapunzel, where trapeze, juggling, clowning, one crazy puppet and a tale of resisting parental expectations are all Tangled up in a skein of silk. What a great way to kickstart the New Year! Proteus Theatre is an award-winning company that had come onto my radar after having a ball at "The Party" at Jackson's Lane in the October half-term (click here).  My affection for the company grew when I found they were based in Basingstoke and, being a Hampshire lass myself, I was even more committed to see one of their shows outside of London.  Regional theatre is what I grew up with - from village halls to Chichester Festival Theatre and the like. By the time I moved to London at 22, I was thick with theatre experiences, of which only two had been in the capital, both on school trips. 

So when I heard that their circus Rapunzel was on tour over Christmas, I decided that whatever it takes, we would make the trip down there.  And a trip to Rogate dove-tailed nicely into Sunday lunch with my parents down the road and a chance to catch up with local friends at the play. A bit of a home-coming really. It was an added bonus to find another familiar face there - my daughter was chuffed to recognise Kaveh Rahnama from "The Party", and I was delighted as he'd been the acrobalance instructor on my very first experience afternoon with girlfriends at Circus Space (click here for link), and got the party started there too.

Circus has been part of the Proteus landscape for years under the artistic direction of Mary Swan, collaborating with aerial choreographer Lorraine Moynehan, but this was the first time it had been brought centre stage. Coincidentally it was Lorraine who had given my first ever lesson on static trapeze at Circus Space, so you could say she got me off the ground, and trust me on this, that was no mean feat, she's awesome!  It also turned out Jodie Hoffmann, playing Rapunzel, was the friend of one of the students I'd met at the Flying Fantastic Scratch Night last term (click here). This production then was turning not so much into a trip down memory lane as a pitstop at a memory intersection.  We walked into the hall to find the production in the round, seats circling a large ring, speckled like sawdust, with a golden construction at the centre from which hung a trapeze, suggesting playground, tower and gilded cage all at once, brainchild of designer Sam Pine.

The story is set in a circus that has seen better days. The cracking Ringmaster (Paul Huntley-Thomas) and his motley crew cobble together a show.  There is the hilarious psychic charlady Mags (Megan Brooks), who comes to life (but never quite in time for the show) when possessed by the sublime Russian spirit of Madame Gypsy Rosie Poopkovia, who bit the dust half-way through an aerial act and is herself haunted by unfinished business; the strongman Mr Impossible (Kaveh Rahnama), burdened with the weight of an impossibly successful family preceding him and an unspeakable love;  and star attraction Rapunzel on trapeze, as tiny and feisty as a sparrow, as graceful as a swan, and when she sat on the swing there were echoes too, for me, of a mermaid in a sideshow, enhanced by her flowing blue locks, this is circus, after all. 

The community of Circus Rapunzel

Impossible George (Kaveh Rahnama)
Their life as a community is a precarious balancing act. With barely enough money to survive, performing on an increasingly empty stomach is taking its toll on the performers (regional funding, hello!), while the responsibility of keeping this family of misfits afloat is stressing out the Ringmaster, and disaster is brewing in the tea-leaves that old Mags is reading. Then comes the salvation, so it appears at first, in the arrival of Prince Charming, new act Leo the Lion-Tamer (Luke Francis), minus the lion, but with a flea circus in tow. Afraid of heights, Leo's heart nonetheless soars at the sight of Rapunzel and they  fall in love. Rapunzel, it emerges, dreams of running away from the circus to a cottage by the seaside, with roses growing up the wall. The prospective loss of his adopted daughter pushes the Ringmaster over the edge and he becomes a real villain, casting a spell to grow her hair and imprison her once and for all in the tower. I couldn't help but feel for the Ringmaster a little - I mean, isn't it a constant labour of love, after all, not to turn into a tyrant when those we love challenge us and betray our expectations?! Luckily the hair has a mind of its own, and is on hand to save the day. Quite literally in the form of the most fabulous hand puppet that had the audience in stitches, finding its voice through psychic Mags - a star is worn!  Ultimately the story was of a journey where each of the characters met their fears and discovered hidden strengths, whether from cutting loose, letting go, picking up the mantle or daring to scale new heights. My kind of circus message!

The atmospheric music by Paul Wild, Martin Swan and Jane Caley was perfectly pitched (see trailer at the end), and the cast were experts at sensing the audience dynamics, employing amusing impromptu asides and a wide variety of circus skills to draw the audience in - juggling with balls and hoops, acrobatics, tumbling into comedy falls, and beautiful turns on trapeze in such a confined space that I think you could safely squeeze contortion into the bargain. In return the audience delivered up peels of laughter and squeals of delight. At half-time ice-creams were handed out to the children (does life get any better for a kid?!), and a red silk wound round the frame to disguise a surprise for the second half. Curiosity aroused, the temptation to sneak a peek was just too much for some! Meanwhile, curious myself, I openly listened in on conversations and chatted to everyone I could. The general gist was that while the audience was not quite expecting this level of circus in the show going by past experience (note: this is an audience that keeps coming back!), they were enjoying it very much. Afterwards the cast stayed behind for a barrage of Questions and Answers with the audience. Are the Ringmaster's fabulous whiskers real? (Yep!) Who made Impossible George's Cape? (Sam Pine) What does Hair have for breakfast? (Moving swiftly on) How do different  venues change the dynamics? (Short answer: they adapt to the challenges) How did you get that good at juggling? (Practice) and so on. Then they had to dismantle the set, pack up and take it all home to Basingstoke. The last part a thankless task. But I hope the team take comfort from the joy they brought on a bleak January afternoon, and the impact they've made. "Amazing, magical, wonderful, exciting, scary and funny" was my six year old daughter's verdict, for instance, before asking for lessons in backflips. And all the children afterwards, mine included, were looking at the circus equipment longingly - the cast made it look so much fun! The good news is if you are down in Hampshire there are a fair few opportunities to learn circus skills. Proteus' own Creation Space runs classes in Basingstoke while Top Banana Circus is starting kids'  classes in Portsmouth Guildhall see news link here. So, I think it's fair to say circus is hair to stay, and it's growing … and that now and again it's good to get back to your roots.

Rapunzel is on tour until Sunday, 18 January, 2015 - click here for details 

Hair with Mags (Megan Brooks)

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