Friday, 11 August 2017

Chapter 210: Postcards Festival Finale... Shhh!

"Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung"  (PT Barnum)
Michaela O'Connor and Sean Kempton
All photos unless otherwise credited: Liam Croucher (

Every so often in life a night will come along that takes me completely by surprise, and that's what happened on the last night of the Postcards Festival at Jacksons Lane watching genius clowning at play in a cabaret where every single act had all of us in the audience gasping at the sheer talent, audacity and risk. Humbug! I can hear people say. You curated the show. Of course you'd say that! Well yes. Barnum has been the soundtrack of my circus journey since the very beginning. I love both the honky-tonk musical and the character of the circus impresario who brought the colours of his life to a world fixed in black and white. As with Barnum, I sing out, because these guys are worth it. I am very grateful for the illuminating photography of National Circus graduate Liam Croucher (see, that speak volumes about the artists involved where my words fail.

It was surreal taking my seat next to my husband, when only five minutes before I had been on my hands and knees outside the dressing rooms remaking the interval sign I had left in a shop in Tooting earlier. Taking in the stage ahead, and a swig of red wine, was like activating a reset button though, erasing all memory of tech, and preparation. I was simply an audience member, out for the night with a few mates, my mind a blank page, ready to be impressed. 


Darkness. The music cranked up - Do you wanna funk? - and the spotlight fell on Sean Kempton and Michaela O'Connor centre stage in white shirts, gold lamé leggings, and a slash of red. Sitting there, shoulder shrugging. A couple of clowns who clearly adore each other, who read each other so easily, rhythms totally in synch. A nod to each other, a signal, "let's do this..."
Photo: Giusi Tomasello

Their infectious energy had us laughing, whooping and on our feet within moments, turning round to connect with those around us. Sean had choreographed the evening to a cracking soundtrack of upbeat 80s anthems - who could resist?! Lights out again. From flashdance to flash torches illuminating parts of performers who would be on that evening.

Jessica and Jair Ramirez were the first act. Jair came on with a broom and carrying a mannequin over his shoulder which came to live and led into a deeply romantic acrobalance routine.  Of course the concept brought back memories of Mannequin the film, and the video to the Starship classic, but here the music was an altogether different soundtrack. It was slow, lyrical and poignant. The poise and precision, undercut by the tension in the positions, brought the story to life as much as the mannequin.

The mantle of the broom was picked up by Michael Standen, gazing after Jair, holding it tight. Hands materialized seductively around his body, and then shoved him off as Soulnia took the stage to "Give me a reason to love". A Portishead temptress with hoops set on fire in all sorts of articulations, she swallowed a ring only to rethread it through her neck onto a chain. Go figure!

Michael returned with his own hoop, through which he did all manner of contortions. Set to the xylophone music bubbling out Chopin in C, it was both a hilarious and kooky act in contrast to the studied depth and brooding beauty of Sophie Page Hall and Will Davis' aerial tango set to Piazolla's Libertango. 

Argentine melodies continued as audience members were roped onto being on stage, teased on with a tango dance then literally tied into position as one of four corners of a square. I appreciated the irony of one of the "posts" being the shibari savant Hanna who has brought the esoteric art of Japanese rope bondage to tightwire on  stage at Jacksons Lane in her solo show Wire-Do. No one had a clue where this was all leading until Sean came on with a mic: "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Jacksons Lane, London, England, nearly Europe... brought to you by the promoter Lucy Loves Circus, fighting for the featherweight lightweight belt, Beeettttttyyyyyy Beeeedddddlllllaaammmmm!!!" Down the stairs, making her entrance in a burlesque of boxing, came Betty Bedlam in a red satin robe with her name emblazoned in gold on the back. It was a class act, the very essence of "burlare", from where burlesque derives, which is to poke fun, and she did that by teasing out the audience. A burlesque act needs to have a hook, and as a boxer as well as performer, Betty Bedlam certainly had one, knocking out squats and press-ups with gusto, and delivering up fierce sass on her own terms, she was a bonafide circus strongwoman with real punch.


The second act opened in overdrive with Sean and Michaela clowning around with the audience again. Nobody was safe, as I found out as Michaela got me up on stage. There was one guy in shades and air guitar (my very first tennis racket!), another on the lights board, and centre stage was Ruby working it with a hairbrush and letting rip. One of those rare moments of collective hypnotism. Can you feel it?! 

As Rhia O'Reilly@rdpixie tweeted about Jair Ramirez after the cabaret "it's hard to beat aerial done right" and Jair's high-octane act on aerial straps powered home. Tension built as he gracefully wound up and up into the straps only to jerk into a sudden drop, suspended by just one foot. 

Michael Standen came back, but, as Ade Berry observed later, this was "Michael as we've never seen him before" in a blonde Cleopatra-cut wig, nude leotard and shorts, he performed extraordinary feats of gymnastics and handstands on canes in a Sia tribute act, as his svelte frame took on the impersonal robotics and androgynous hue of the child model in the Chandelier video, poles apart from Jessica's fully fledged female mannequin. This was cabaret with an agender.

I loved the mesmerising act as Soulnia cast a spell this time with mind-reading tricks. One of the volunteers she selected looked familiar - I am pretty certain she was on stage last year at Shhh! but, lacking Soulnia's powers of mentalism, am none the wise to who she was!

Sam Goodburn, whose solo show you can catch at the Edinburgh Fringe at the moment (click here for post on Dumbstruck ) zoomed around on his unicycle in Top Gear, and to that style of anthem, whipping off clothes, putting them back on, and making the audience crack up. Things went wrong, but were recovered in such a way you could never quite be certain whether by design or by accident - as if to prove that point the smiley face on the back of his boxers would flip down to a sad face emoji in an instant. Ha! The video below says it all:

The clowning around reached new heights of crazy as Sean desperately tried to impress Betty Bedlam with his own impersonation of her boxing burlesque routine. This was Sean as you've never seen him before, stripping down to a pair of gold lamé shorts and nipple tassels only to find himself face to chest with The Mountain, Betty's boyfriend, who had been pulled from the audience at the last minute and towered above him, while Jair, back with his broom, swept away the detritus of the previous act! 

For the grand finale it had to be Beyoncé. One of the things I love about cabaret is the way it celebrates life through subversion, and here Michaela O'Connor mixed her original triples trapeze act from Vegas (click here for video) with Single Ladies Will Davis and Sophie Page Hall. To be honest, with a track like that they could have got away with simply standing on the trapeze and throwing in a few diva gestures, but with two aerialists who had been involved in a Guinness World Record Breaking Challenge and one Circus Maximus Winner, they brought the house down. 

Watching the show felt as though the past three years of writing and circus love had been condensed into one single evening and shared. It was great to have friends there, including those I've trained with, my buddy Jo, met on a Circumference blind-date (see post on Shelter Me - click here) and to meet writer Leslie Tate, whose book "Heaven's Rage" (click here) premieres as a short film in Autumn, directed by Mark Crane, also there that night with his wife, artist Sheelagh Frew Crane (see her portrait of a female clown on Instagram). I knew maybe two dozen people there tops that night, and I wonder who the rest were, but not knowing was actually part of the magic. 

Thanks to Adrian Berry and all Jacksons Lane, and to this cast of circus heroes who gave it their all and rocked it: Sean and Michaela, Jess, Jair, Sonia, Michael, Sophie, Will, Betty Bedlam and Sam it has been so much fun off and on the stage with you (even when I least expected it!), ENCORE!!!

Thanks for the feedback!

Rhia O'Reilly @rdpixie Jul 30
@Lucylovescircus awesome show last night! You curated an eclectic bunch of talented wonders!

A Girl & Her Passport @agirlpassport Jul 30
This was amazing last night! I highly recommend.

Luciano Rila  @DrTrapezio Jul 30
@Lucylovescircus Thanks for putting together such a fantastic show 🎪🤸‍♀️

Leslie Tate  @LSTateAuthor Aug 11  
@Lucylovescircus A fantastic show. Thank you, Lucy! 🍎🍒🥦☀️

We've just checked out the Autumn programme now. If that's the quality, Jacksons Lane is the new Sadlers Wells for us!

Jacksons Lane @jacksons_lane Jul 31
Great times at glorious Shhh! Cabaret on Saturday, which closed our 3-week extravaganza of circus, cabaret & lots of fun #Postcards2017

*Ade Berry @Ade_Berry 1 h*
Replying to @Lucylovescircus @jacksons_lane
Another fantastic show, same time, same place next year! But don't quote me on that... Shhh! 

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