Saturday, 28 February 2015

Chapter 66: Sad Clown, Fun afFair

It could be said that theatre gold-dust is discovered when it mines the richness of humanity, in all its flaws and wonder, right to the depths, to its very core, and this is what happened in Parrot {in the} Tank's play Black Dog Gold Fish that was on at the Vault Festival last week.

Parrot {in the} Tank team: Big Claps Huge Smiles
Photo: Facebook 

Through the play, writer Sam Bailey explores the subject of depression, examining the absurd and the wonderfully funny in the situation as much as the negative. I had heard about the production from a friend, Gemma, who had been there at university for me with a listening ear, when I was studying the language of Almódovar and a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown myself. Finding my voice was what made the difference - having a listener, and finding a creative way to express it.  Through oil pastels, and juggling balls when I couldn't give a toss. The blacker the mood, the brighter the colours. 20 years on, it seems circus skills and colourful expression are still my default coping mechanism! And here is this play, a work in progress they announce, just 12 days old when I saw it on Sunday, finding its voice, and a sell-out audience to boot. It is a play that can pack a poignant punch in the guts, while also being laugh-out-loud funny.

Black Dog Gold Fish was part of the Vault Festival, by Waterloo, a space where water drips down the walls, judders with the rumble of trains overhead. It's a veritable dank tank and the perfect stage for a play set in a run-down aquarium. Enter Italian Remy, a Mediterranean stranded in a dilapidated English seaside town in winter, the proverbial fish out of water, and he's dropped his trousers. Eccola il bufo, I thought, cue clown. And here I define clown as a figure putting pain on show, whether from a mental or physical knock, which gives rise to laughter. We laugh at an absurd scenario, but we also squirm in empathy, for that is the cathartic function of the actor, isn't it? The actor represents the audience. We follow him on a journey into the unknown from a safe distance, although with the transverse seating and the characters often addressing the audience, the illusion of the safety net of a fourth wall quickly dissolves in this production.

The gentle and sensitive Remy (Andrea Foa) is working for the forthright, frankly nitwit of a boss, Mr Kyriacou (Joe Connor), and while caring for the fish becomes increasingly despondent, as though their incarceration in the tanks mirrors his own entrapment in his mental state. So he releases them one by one, but accidentally kills one. This is played out in a fantasy sequence at a funfair, where a symbolic rescue of a goldfish goes helter-skelter when the winning dart he is throwing accidentally spears the fish. The fish then comes back to life as a surreal manifestation of his guilt (for his depression as much as its death), a head on the body of a black dog, exacting revenge by causing Remy to push away all human contact, and ultimately his only friend, Kyle, played by the gracefully gangly Kyle Shepherd.

If that sounds at all bleak, it's not.  There is a lot of warmth and humour throughout the play. Kyle at one point, as he sees it emulating his friend Remy on a zen journey to become one with the jelly fish, breaks into the aquarium at night,  threading his way comically through the alarm sensors (red wool held in zigzag by the audience), to jump into the tank and mimic their moves. Joe Boylan's black body-suited Goldfish is hilarious, and has all the dry wit of a cabaret act, never a drag, in the way he inveigles himself into Remy's good books to the exclusion of all others. Remy holds onto him as company, but that only serves to underline to the audience his increasing isolation in the real world. Ultimately, as Remy lets go, the goldfish gets flushed down the loo, which made me both laugh and wince. There is a bar I once went to in Paris, in the Quartier du Marais, you see, where the loo had a fake cistern-cum-fishtank. It takes some nerve to pull the chain.

One of the questions asked by Parrot {in the} Tank on Facebook is where would you like to see the show go next? Well, depression, particularly among men, has been very much in the press this week. Matt Haig, an author I came across on Twitter, has been writing in the Guardian about his own experience (click here), in Times 2 there was a feature on the vulnerability of sensitive boys in pressurised environments (click here), even Grazia was featuring the story of an attempted suicide, one of the saddest parts being it was such a surprise to his wife. And that's another thing in terms of indicators - the sad clown is a misnomer when it comes to depression, often it ticks by unnoticed under the surface, just out of view, a point made in the promo video for Kickstarter:

So, I would say target the teenagers who do not always have the tools in place to open up. Show them a voice, a way, and that they are not alone. They can cope with the colourful language. And it'll beat the grey days.

The musical version of Almódovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown starring Tamsin Greig is on at the moment at The Playhouse.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Chapter 65: Circus Strongwoman

"Life is like a fan, Lucy, our strength lies in opening up."

"Circus Strongwoman" by @franceswidow

I was 20 when I received those words of wisdom from a friend, Paco, along with a russet-coloured, intricately decorated fan, and I have kept them close ever since. I was living in Valencia at the time and once a week would meet up with him and his friends, and over red wine and baguette-syle bocadillos we would share tales, and tales within tales. The fan is old now, the hinge has loosened, and with the slightest flick it whirs open. It remains a constant reminder to take risks, tell stories and keep sharing, even when the temptation is to snap shut. 

So here's a story I'll share, because it is a striking and fundamental part of this circus adventure, though I'm not quite sure how without revealing a bit too much. Here goes anyway:

A couple of years ago, I felt worn out and short of breath. Literally and metaphorically. So to shake things up I started a pole-fit class for fun (see The Polelogue). With pole came access to a range of movements I would never have believed possible.  Handstands, and all manner of inversions for starters. And with that physical freedom came a euphoria, a liberation, an attitude and a joie de vivre that I wanted to capture somehow. So I looked around for a  female boudoir photographer - had to be a woman - with whom all my negatives (the photographic kind) would be safe.  And I lucked out. I met Stormy Sloane from Rebel & Romance, a young photographer over from the U.S. who is going places. 

We spoke on the phone initially, and Stormy was very warm and friendly. Even so, the very thought  of a shoot took me well out of my comfort zone - but that was the whole point, to push boundaries and counteract that suffocating feeling of stagnation. Stormy came round to my house with her portfolio. I took to her instantly and when later she came to photograph me, Stormy put me so at ease that her pictures captured my soul - the naked truth, as it were. A year or so later, I found myself writing this blog and thinking of one of Stormy's pictures I'd seen on Instagram of the most beautiful girl with an albino python around her neck. A snake charmer, I thought, that would fit nicely in my post I was writing at that point (see Chapter 19). I contacted her to ask for permission to use it, along with that of her model. It turned out that the model Katrina Lilwall, was in fact a circus performer. By chance it turned out that she was in the dramatic "Midnight's Circus" that very week at a theatre called Jacksons Lane in Highgate, which I'd never been to before. My husband came along for once, as did another friend, and Stormy happened to be free that night as well. It was a turning point in many ways as by that time I was training at Circus Space too, and it was an opportunity to really show my husband what I loved about the beauty of pole, straps, silks, trapeze and aerial skills in general. To hear him say "I get it", well, that was a eureka moment, for sure. As we were with Stormy we ended up chatting to Kat and some of the performers afterwards from Aircraft Circus, which inspired me to write about the show by way of an open thank you (see Chapter 24), and that in turn brought me into contact with folk at Jacksons Lane, kickstarting a whole new chapter in my life.

It's funny too, as Midnight's Circus was styled as a dark, sexy spectacle, and given the current wave of Fifty Shades hysteria around a fantasy which, quite frankly, I find disturbingly misogynistic, I especially enjoy remembering a show where straps were used not as restraints to pin down, but as an aide to soaring to new heights. A show where the women were fire-eaters rather than damp sponges. And reading Lucy Ribchester's "The Hourglass Factory" at the moment, in which a female journalist is exploring the mystery of a disappearing trapeze artiste, set in the context of the suffragette movement and emancipation, really brings home to me this idea of women finding empowerment and strength in a circus space.  A space of action, rather than reaction, where you are continually pushing yourself out your comfort zone, rather than being dragged through it by the hair, caveman-style. It is light-years ahead (give or take a few worm-holes) and quite literally poles apart from the Dark Ages of Fifty Shades. And it is, for me, where the real adventure begins …

Photo by Stormy Sloane

Thank you to multi-talented circus performer Frances Widow (@franceswidow) for permission to use her stunning Circus Strongwoman. I noticed her beautiful sketches on her Twitter feed at the same time as she had been helping me find the Facebook page of Alula (@AlulaCyr), the new female Cyr wheel trio on the block. One of the group is Lil Rice who I last saw in Tangerino's "Red Shoes" in summer (see Chapter 28). Circus Strongwomen all, exciting and super-inspiring. Ones to watch.

Lucy Ribchester is reading from her book The Hourglass Factory at the Brixton BookJam on Monday, 2 March at Hootananny's (Whoot! Where I last saw Kate Tempest! See Chapter 17 and Chapter 18 )
There is also a book launch on Thursday, 5th March at Lutyens and Rubensteins, Notting Hill.
Follow her on Twitter @lucyribchester for further news about upcoming events.

And speaking of Circus Strongwomen, great to hear, hot of the press as it were, that Katrina Lilwall is in the flaming brilliant group Black Fire Girls (click herewho you may have also seen performing, and voted for!, in ITV's "Get Your Act Together".

July 2015 update: I have now had my own experience fire-eating - see see Chapter 88: Playing With Fire (click here)

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Chapter 64: Spreading the love

“I don’t know how on earth you stay at home with three kids, Lucy. I would go mad. How on earth do you keep your sanity?” asked the lawyer I’d just met. “Oh it’s simple” I replied “I just escape to the circus.” And she thought I was kidding...
But I’m not. And today, Valentine’s Day, is a great day to celebrate a love affair, and Lucy loves circus, that has saved my sanity over the past year, given me space to dream, to write and to connect. 

And at the end of this week, I’m feeling particularly loved up after a trip to the States to see one of my oldest and dearest friends, Linda. Three nights in Hillsborough, North Carolina with her and her family, the latest addition, Little Star, having arrived in the summer. Economy long-haul without kids, what a luxury. Nine hours spent sleeping and clearing dross from my iPhone. Over 2,500 photos went. It’s amazing what we hang onto, isn’t it? 

I arrived to beaming smiles and the warmest of welcomes, above all from Little Star. Her home town of Hillsborough is, like her, small with a mighty presence. Voted the most literary small town in America by the Wall Street Journal, it is a haven not only for authors and poets, but artists, jewellers, and all manner of creatives. And circus? Well, of course, circus is everywhere. The poster in my guest room, from the 1920s for starters. Home from home!

Food took on a filmic quality - we feasted on fried green tomatoes, slurped oysters, devoured shrimp and grits, and melted like marshmallows into cardomon hot chocolate. To work it off, we strolled around window shopping, wandered along the river and into the woods. Time, as ever in the company of babies, both suspended in the moment and yet flying by. A trip to the botanical gardens at Duke University followed by coffee at the Nasher Museum of Art opposite was a sanctuary of peace and tranquility, and a chance to pause for thought, but with Miró showcasing, again I couldn’t help but think the Fates were clowning around. 

And it so happened I met another bona fide circus-lover. How? Well, it was my birthday on the trip as well and we went for a birthday breakfast to a great cafe out of town called Johnny’s, all tablecloths and vintage china, more hipster than chintz, where the bright barista fixing up my Mayan Mocha turned out to have a birthday days apart. Of course, when Yaël mentioned her latest trip to Glastonbury, it was a small  jump to circus-talk. It turns out Yaël is an expert unicyclist and juggler, whose father had once informed her if all else fails, learn a skill and join the circus. Noted! We swapped contact details and now hooked up on Facebook and Instagram I'm sure we'll meet again one day. Building bridges and spreading the love. Welcome to the Age of Aquarius. Live, Love, Laugh, Let Go. This post is for you. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Chapter 63: Under pressure: learning circus skills is a great release for kids

Having successfully negotiated the school run this morning on flat-running tyres I pulled over to the petrol station on the way home. As I fixed the tube onto the air valve and watched the PSI reading gradually rise to the recommended level, I reflected on how children are rather like tyres. There is a recommended level of pressure for them to run well. Too much and they explode, and too little and they become, well, deflated. 

And for me that is why learning circus skills strikes such a great balance for kids. My daughter is dying to start gymnastics classes but in our next of the woods they are hugely over-subscribed with long waiting lists.  So when I started at Circus Space and began to look around, the penny dropped. Why not circus skills? They also develop gymnastics skills, and encourage core strength. You learn moves that make your body fly and your heart soar. And it's fun! It gives them a challenge, without cracking the whip.

So this summer I took them to Airborne Circus for a couple of classes and a two-day workshop (see Chapter 25: Circus School for kids). They had a terrific time but it is too far for them to travel after school, ditto the all the Youth Circus run by Jacksons Lane, Circus Space in Hoxton, Albert and Friends in Hammersmith, the Hangar over in Woolwich, and so forth (see links at the end). So when I heard the announcement by Flying Fantastic that they were going to start up a programme for young people in our neck of the woods, I was delighted, and my goodness, how lucky are we? 

Chris and Edel are circus amateurs in the broadest, fullest sense. They both have full-time jobs and a young family together, and set up Flying Fantastic on top of that a few years ago running aerial fitness classes. The level of time and commitment they have put into making it a success is tremendous. Classes are now running in Farringdon and Battersea offering hoop, static trapeze and silks, and just before Christmas hosted the first student performance night (see Chapter 53: Circus for Ordinary People) that gave a space to students to show their families and friends exactly what they are doing every week. These are not people who will necessarily go on to be circus professionals - not that you'd know it from that evening! - but it is circus for ordinary people, as they say.

And now ordinary kids, like mine. Well, there might have been a tiny element of whip cracking where my son was concerned. Not because he doesn't like circus, but because he prefers juggling and diabolo with his feet firmly on the floor - "Mum, the thing is, I'm just meant to be grounded". And here is where I tread a fine line. Actually I did insist that he came along to give it a go at least. There was no forcing - unlike gym classes I remember of old with barking orders and red-faced teachers, there is nothing but gentle encouragement, and the space for children to just sit and watch if they prefer until they choose to participate. Encouraged by Chris, man-to-man!, I noticed in next to no time my son was off practicing knots and pulling himself up on his own, smile beaming. The same for his sister, challenged by the very height of the trapeze and then, gently, sitting first with legs extended, then experimented a little with poses and in next to no time swinging around by her knees. 

And here's the other thing I want to pass on to my children. The lesson that it's ok to feel afraid about starting something new, but that fear should never hold you back or limit you. Circus is a great environment for presenting these challenges in a relaxed and supportive way, and I am incredibly grateful to those who give up their time and energy to create that learning space. Cheers!

Interested in your children learning circus schools?  Here a few options in London I have come across. Please feel free to bring my attention to any others I may have missed and will update! 

East Finchley N2 and Mill Hill East (NW7): Airborne Circus Youth Classes
Highgate N6: Jacksons Lane Youth Circus
Primose Hill NW1: Circus Glory
Hammersmith W6: Albert and Friends Instant Circus
Hammersmith W6: Aerialand Kids Club
Battersea SW11: Flying Fantastic

If you are outside London, worth just a quick google for circus skills in your area - it really is a case of #circuseverywhere, and if not, how about starting up your own…

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Chapter 62: NOODLES

Photo: Sean Purser (
And now for something completely different. NoFit State's Flying Noodles Circus. An evening of pure, unadulterated, gratuitous FUN. Noodles is a bonkers riot of laughter and colour to blast away the January blues, stuffed with slapstick tricks and circus treats.  We walked out on a high and my heart is still grinning like a Cheshire Cat. 

A stage-hand, *Miguel, walks on in a blue boiler-suit, adjusting the lights, tripping over, comically apologetic. Visions of canary yellow and loud pink descend the stairs at either side babbling, or babeling?, away in their native Spanish and Italian. Rays of linguistic sunshine, such intrinsically happy languages, they chivvy the audience along and clown around. *Zenaida and *Cristina then are the self-styled Mediterranean "Brownies" to the pair of Scandinavian "Blondies", *Lisa and *Klara, dressed in emerald green and royal blue. Seeing them all lined up at the beginning swapping round colour-coordinating handbags, well, it's like a Kate Spade shop meets Pedro Almódovar.

And then we come to the noodles. Noodles that are are chewed like gum, slurped like spaghetti and pulled out from underwear like wayward knicker elastic. They are made into bow-ties and animals, wigs and beards, used to fashion Madonnas and Monroes - the skies the limit ... and then it rains more  noodles! In a surreal cookery programme pots and pans, and bras, catch fire, water is squirted, flour is farted, nothing is sacred and everything is liberated. It was physical clowning par excellence, the likes of which I haven't enjoyed since Jorge Costa and Julia Muzio from Argentina at the CASA festival last year (see Clowning around and The School of Hard Knocks).

The aerial apparatus are noodle-like ropes, multiple cloud swings on pulleys so that the weight of the performers counter-balanced each other, and silks made of hundreds of fine strands. On occasion they have a life of their own, slipping just out of reach of the caretaker as he attempts to put them away, while obeying a masterful click of a girl's fingers. The aerial sequences themselves were an uplifting array of swirling colours and sheer beauty. I could have watched them for hours. Twisting and turning bodies that speak of strength and fearless grace. And funny with it, no mean feat. The friend I went with, who has herself done a fair few turns as a stand-up comedian, brave lady, totally agreed. 

There were wonderful turns on the tight-wire, which struck a chord after our four classes on it at Circus Space this term, although in my case the comedy wasn't exactly intentional. The flexibility, speed and the jumps executed with razor-sharp precision were exciting to watch, and Marilyn flapping around trying to make her skirt behave seemed like a parody of the sexy siren in red heels I had so loved in NoFit State's "Bianco" show a few years back. The signature hand-balancing act from the posters was another class act, maintaining her balance under a barrage of noodles.

The show is given magic touch from Miguel whose sleight-of-hand tricks involve multiplying raw eggs like amoeba, puffing smoke rings from a noodle-cum-hookah in an armchair of a wheelbarrow and apparating a bottle of red wine out of nowhere (please, teach me that one!) - he just made us laugh. At the end of the day, for us Noodles was warming comfort food, pure and simple, that slipped down easily and left us utterly satisfied. As we walked outside the snow was tipping down. Noodle-dust. Surreal.


Aerial Ropes and Clown: Cristina Geninazzi       
Aerial Ropes and Tightwire: Klara Mosseberg 
Aerial Ropes and Hand-Balance: Lisa Engberg
Magic and Noodles Manipulation: Miguel Muñoz Segura
Aerial Ropes and Clown: Zenaida Alcalde