Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Chapter 183: Compagnie XY: It's Not Yet Midnight

Photo credit: Jane Hobson

Compagnie XY is at The Roundhouse at the moment and their show It's not yet midnight... is not to be missed. The company was last here seven years ago, with their previous show "Le Grand C", and since then has grown and now comprises 22-strong (and fit!) French acrobats whose collective philosophy - "On my own I'm faster, together we go further" - underpins their core strength. There was a real sense that operating on such a large scale opens up physical language into all sorts of interesting articulations and possibilities and I love that solidarity which brings a positive, generous energy to a world that, quite frankly, is in dire need of it right now. It also makes for a visually striking spectacle.

I saw the show last night and found myself flanked by theatre critics. It was press night, after all. Dutifully getting out my notebook too, I jotted down a few points, barely legible in the light of day, but my pen kept dropping along with my jaw, and the black ink made more of a mark on my jeans than on the page. Leafing through the notes now, I smile to see "Bloody Hell!!!" somersaulting across the page, and it brings it all back: courageous, talented, surprising, totally mesmerising, you just never know what crazy thing is round the corner with these guys. Launching like rockets from a teeterboard onto the shoulders of another, flipping on a wooden square, held aloft by others, with such ease and grace you'd have thought it were a trampoline, head to head balancing on a human table, a clown of a pony-trot across the stage... I just kept wondering, whatever next?! 

There was a metropolis feel to the production both in terms of the neutral colours of the shirts, trousers, and odd pair of braces, and the architectures created by bodies in formations. A human tree falling timber into a sea of hands... and then rising up again. A roundhouse of 11 sets of performers two-high. Towers four-high showcasing the phenomenal strength and balance not just of XY but XX in the company too. The muted tones and minimal use of props also meant that attention was squarely focussed on the performers themselves. The lighting was simple - at one point the house lights were raised for an act as though turning the tables on the audience. The music was great: I enjoyed the strains of violin accompanying the tension, the uplifting lindy hop that got toes tapping, and the moments that required no soundscape at all other than the rhythm and beat of the bodies themselves.

The performers pushed themselves, and each other, to their limits, and beyond, which was thrilling to watch. Whether fighting, embracing, balancing, throwing or tumbling, with an accent (a sexy Gallic one at that!) on risk, they truly are ceroc 'n roll stars of circus, and infectious with it. So beg, borrow, steal, or, better yet, BUY A TICKET! They are here at The Roundhouse until 23 April (click here), catch them while you can. And then again. ENCORE! 

Film credit: Remy Archer for The Roundhouse (click here)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Chapter 182: Tweedy's Lost Property

Photo credit:

If anyone has kids at a loose end on Easter holidays, my top tip right now is to catch Tweedy at Jacksons Lane in Highgate while you can. That said, there were plenty of adults there this afternoon without children in tow, for whether you are 3 or 103, the appeal of slapstick is timeless. I have seen Tweedy clowning around in Big Tops several times now, both as part of Giffords Circus (click here for post) and Cirque Beserk "circus for grown ups" (click here for post). I love the fact he has a sense of humour as gentle as his Scottish burr, and a pet iron called Keith: he just makes me laugh! Still, as much as a draw his name is, his function as a Big Top clown
 is to provide linkage and continuity between acts, covering changes in rigging and performers. Here at Jacksons Lane, a platform for contemporary circus, he was to take centre stage for an entire show. How would that work?

Simply brilliantly is the short answer. Tweedy took classic gags, some of which will be familiar if you have seen him before, and wove them into a story with a kafkaesque ridiculousness to it, as caretaker in a lost property office, never quite reaching the phone in time and going round in circles. Through the magic of Tweedy's clowning, inanimate objects took on a life of their own and he was very, very funny. Tweedy took clowning tropes and props, like the signature bowler hat, and gave them his own twist, like his quiff of red hair at the front. He is the reassuring rebuff to such declarations that "They don't make them like that any more!" Oh yes they do. 

I went with four children in tow ranging from 5 to 11. Three of mine, who adore Tweedy already, and a friend of theirs who had never seen him in action before and had no clue what to expect. We certainly didn't expect a show long enough to warrant an interval, but there was never a dull or restless moment. As ever, cutting it fine from the trek up from South London, we arrived in the nick of time, and sat down at the front in an empty row. Of course, by rights that is asking for it, but fear not - Tweedy is an old hand in sizing up the audience and while there was some participation for sure, he made fun with, rather than fun of, those who chose to interact. It was a sheer joy to see old school slapstick and astonishing tricks so close up. Some tricks, like the dives and certain balancing acts, impressed because of the element of physical risk involved, while others, like the cigar box juggling, impressed through the sheer beauty of the skill. The kids were laughing the whole way through and were reluctant afterwards to pinpoint any favourite moment as "it was all funny Mum". I agree. Still, I had a soft spot for the scene where Tweedy donned red shoes that got his toes tapping, only to have them reclaimed while he was in his element, having fun. The shoes made me think of Moira Shearer's poignant classic (ballet) turn and clown boots rolled into one. Meanwhile the highlights for the older boys included the ladder routine and juggling precariously on a lethal rolla-bolla, while my 8 year old thought the best bit was when a violin bow was threaded through Tweedy's tongue (ew!). Meanwhile my youngest waved at Tweedy and thumbed at me when he was looking for volunteers, and it made her day to see Mummy then pulled up on stage too doing... well, find out for yourself! 

Tweedy's Lost Property is showing at Jacksons Lane  tomorrow, Tuesday 11 April at 11am and 3pm (click here) and then has a few more dates on tour, see (click here).

Friday, 31 March 2017

Chapter 181: Box B*tch!!!

The other night I went to an evening of boxing and burlesque. Not natural bedfellows, you might think, but bare with me... 

The evening was at the Transition Zone over in Fulham. Normally I run a mile from the treadmill anonymity of gyms, but this is the sort of space I'd enjoy training in: the urban chic vibe, the music pumping, the relaxed atmosphere and the fierce workouts. It's more of a club really, and a school Mum who's a member invited a couple of us along. She had me at burlesque, obviously.

The evening came about to welcome in one of the new teachers, a boxer, Lily, who is also fabulous burlesque artist, Betty Bedlam. We had our hair braided when we arrived by local salonistas, Blush  + Blow, who later gave a tutorial as well. It felt quite scary having my hair pulled off my face like that, I am used to my hair down and now had nowhere to hide, but that was the point of the evening - being out and proud. The 45 minute boxercise class followed. Note to self: when the email comes round inviting ladies to bring wraps if they have them, they weren't meaning my black silk Myla number! Luckily friends were on hand to help me get to grips with how to wrap the cotton straps round my hands for protection, before donning gloves. 

Lily was hilarious, with quick one-liners and quips, which was lucky as her workout was deadly serious. Another lesson: if you hide at the back you will get called on it. As in: "Lucy, I can still see you there, raise those knees higher!!!" I reflected that what the great trainers and burlesque dancers (and clowns!) have in common is that ability to use humour, eye contact and charisma, to connect with their audience so we follow wherever they lead, so when I could draw breath, I was laughing too, having a ball swinging punches, ducking, weaving and feeling all the stronger for it. I can't remember the last time I sweat buckets like that. 

Photo credit: Betty Bedlam
The lesson in burlesque was something else. All women in the class, we strutted and sashayed in our gym kit, weaving our way through each other with a nod and a wink. We had a good laugh about that afterwards, pepped up by a cheeky glass of wine and Ja Spence's delicious quinoa salad and halva-like homemade protein bar that had me literally swinging from the rafters. 

The piece de resistance though was a stellar show from Betty Bedlam herself, who delivered a real punch in a red satin boxing robe and high heels. And while every good burlesque act turns on a hook, what was superb about this one was that the boxing wasn't a gimmick. Betty Bedlam really is a boxer, a fighter to the core. She knows what she is doing and how to translate the swing of the hips needed to throw a blow into that of an agent provocateur. As well as strong and sexy, Betty Bedlam was funny too - the whole idea of burlesque comes from "la burla" a joke, a parody after all. There was a great sense of no holds barred as we laughed, clapped and cheered her on. All in all, it was a knock-out night. Cheers girls! 

For more information on classes and events see and on social media.
Find @bettybedlam, and sports nutritionist & private chef Ja Spence @carioca_soul on Instagram.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Chapter 180: On Circus and Motherhood

"Questions Ladybird never answered: didn't Mum want to go to the circus too?"
Advice from Mum: "Stop at two darling." Why did you have six then, I wondered? "To get out of the coffee mornings!" She retorted. Being the youngest, I'm eternally grateful for those dreaded coffee mornings! In many ways, having children brought me to circus. Exhausted and frazzled after having my third (I had been warned!), an afternoon of fun with girlfriends learning circus skills at the National Circus (see Chapter 1 - click here) was a way to carve out a play space. When it morphed into learning circus skills on a regular basis I began to see a way to keep fit, and in starting a blog, a way to keep writing. Furthermore, with my doctoral research into Cuban theatre on hold while the kids are young, I thought training in circus skills would be an interesting way to learn about the language of performance from a non-academic angle. As someone who has never been a dancer or a gymnast, learning how the body moves and what it can do in this way has been a revelation.

One of the things I love about circus is that it has developed into a passion and language that I can share with my children. They love the family shows, whether in a Big Top, outdoors or in a theatre. Shows that time and again have provided many laughs and good times together, have also demonstrated how hard graft and talent make the impossible possible.

"All I want is a home-made card."
Mother's Day, 2017
My son, the eldest, loves to clown around, laughing out loud at the likes of Sean Kempton (see post on Stuff - click here) and Tweedy the Clown, who is coming to Jacksons Lane in Easter week. As a result he doesn't find it at all a drag to go into school on World Book Day dressed as the gruesome Miss Trunchball, from Roald Dahl's Matilda, and play it for laughs. He has also been known to pick up a diabolo at the odd festival, thanks to his very first class with Adam Cohen at Airborne Circus, and enjoys watching jugglers like Bibi and Bichu, and Gandini Juggling

My 8 year old daughter loves getting airborne, and we've spent many an hour at Flying Fantastic while she has a class and I hang out on a hoop. As well as reading harp music together, we now share an aerial lexicon that includes terms like "coffin", "bird's nest", and that circus strongwoman pose "The Amazon".

My youngest loves monkeying around and is in her element wearing a red nose (thanks to Comic Relief last week, in plentiful supply at home!), and watching Mummy getting splatted with whipped cream in the Pieface board game at her 5th birthday party last week. She announced only this morning on the school run that she wishes we could do circus everyday, because "it's funny and flyee". 

Helen and Freya
Photo: Michael Taylor
I like to think that this compensates for all the time and energy that my interest in circus has taken away from the family - the nights out when I review shows that aren't for them but give me headspace, the hours in the day I steal to write it all up. And just when I think that, even with all the support and encouragement from my husband, I'm dropping too many balls and that something has to give, I take strength and inspiration from thinking of all the circus Mums who have been there too, or are still finding their way with this whole juggling act. 

Take the picture on the right shared on Sunday by Helen Averley, who I met through Circus Central, with her then 11 week old daughter Freya, in honour of Mother's Day. The image captures the trust and bond between mother and child so eloquently. Then Helen told me the story behind it and I admire it further: "The photo is of a show I made in Belfast called Chagall's Wedding in 2000. I was a single parent and started making the show when Freya was 5 weeks old. In the next 6 months I made all the costumes for 40 people on stage and performed aerial. Freya was with me all the time! An added advantage of co-director Jennifer Jordan being a new mum was that when I was in the air Jen was able to nurse her!!!!" Freya is now17 and an accomplished aerialist in her own right, doing her three A-levels alongside a BTEC in circus arts at Circus Central. 

So here's to all these circus Mums and their legacies, performing, creating, building communities. Thinking here of teachers and artists: Anna Milosevic, my first teacher at Polefit London, Layla Rosa who taught me static trapeze at National Circus, and Jessica Ramirez at Freedom2Fly; Edel Boyle who runs Flying Fantastic with her husband, and fellow mums I see there Andrea, Dan and hoop buddy Cathy; trapeze artist and comedian Michaela O'Connor, who was in Ssshhh! (click here); Lina Johansson, Martha Harrison, Silvia Fratelli from Mimbre female acrobatic company; Mary Swan of Proteus Theatre; Mish Weaver of Stumble Dance CircusJane Rice-Bowen former CEO of National Circus with Kate White; Nell Gifford; performer Julia Busch, one of the first to connect with me on Twitter; Desiree Kongerod who is @anactabove in so many ways, clown, mother and grandmother Flloyd Kennedy (see previous post), all those involved in the production at The Roundhouse of Me, Mother (see below); and countless others met, or yet to meet, on this circus journey. Knowing you are out there doing your thing makes the world of difference. Thank you.

Here is a selection of previous posts relating to circus and motherhood:

Mama's Kitchen (click here): a night at Jacksons Lane Postcards Festival curated by Layla Rosa, that provided food for thought. 
Me, Mother (click here): the show by MES at The Roundhouse asking "What's scarier? A tightrope or motherhood?" exploring the impact of motherhood on the circus body through weaving together the testimonials of circus performers.
Circus Mum and Bedtime Stories (click here): watching an excerpt of Upswing Aerial's Bedtime Stories at circus marketplace CANVAS spoke to my own experience of motherhood.
Bedtime Stories (click here)I then went back with the kids to The Albany, Deptford to see the full show. 
Mother's Day and Gandini Juggling (click here): this circus journey took me on a memorable trip last year to the British Museum with my daughter to see Gandini Juggling perform to Philip Glass' Akhnaten

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Chapter 179: On Shakespeare and Sonnets: Yes! Because...

"Puck and Titania rolled into one" (Ira Seidenstein)
Photo credit: Jane Hobson ( - click here)

Yes! Because...
After an exhausting world tour, and not a little jet-lagged Dame June Bloom, semi-retired Shakespearean scholar and actor extraordinaire, touches down in London this April, ready to give one of her renowned lectures on performing the Bard. Using Shakespeare as her Touchstone Yes! Because... will take you on the rocky road trip of Dame June's life as touring actor, daughter and mother, accompanied by a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous, and a ukulele for good measure for measure...

Dame June is the creation of Australian-born Flloyd Kennedy, a seasoned actor who really has performed all over the world, including London, Brisbane, Glasgow, New York, Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Threshold Festival in Liverpool. Flloyd has two grown-up children and two grandchildren, and has been living in Scotland, on and off, since the 1970s. Training as an actor originally, with a passion for musical theatre and Shakespeare, Flloyd came into comedy and clowning later in life, through meeting Cirque de Soleil and Slava's Snowshow clown Ira Seidenstein (see blog post  Clowning Around - click here  on the workshop I went on with Ira), who directed the show. Dame June, who likes nothing more than a sonnet and a song, draws on all of that, as well as Flloyd's experience of family life. I am looking forward to seeing Dame June in full bloom next month, and in the meantime had a few questions for Flloyd:

When did you start clowning around, and how did you meet Ira?
Master clown Ira Seidenstein came into my life around 14 years ago, when he arrived in Brisbane to do a PhD on Actor Training and I was a member of the fledgling Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble while also studying at the University of Queensland. They invited Ira to run a workshop and then direct a production of Pericles. I was in my late 50s, thinking my chance at an acting career was well past, and I was astonished to find that he was able to engender such unspeakable joy in me with his clown approach to performance. 

I’ve continued to work with Ira ever since then, he is my best friend and my mentor.  I had no ambition to be ‘a clown’ as such, just a better actor (we call ourselves actors in Australia, there’s no genderisation of the profession). But over the years I’ve gradually accepted Ira’s insistence that I am, indeed, a clown. And I’ve slowly but surely recognised that I always have been, from a very small child.  All that messing about as a kid that got me into trouble, all the various attempts over the years to set up little companies so that I could muck about on stage with some pals, all my ongoing resistance to directors who give line readings, and block – Oh how I detest blocking!

Where did Dame June come from?
I took a slight detour around 2007 and decided to do a PhD myself, to research and write about how the actor’s voice actually functions in the process of performing, especially performing Shakespeare. But I couldn’t let go of my life as a theatre maker, so I insisted on having practice as research as part of it. Dame June entered my life pretty much as Ira had done, a happy coincidence. I needed a creative, theatrical way to bring my thesis to life in performance, and after struggling with a total blank mind for days, weeks, months, the idea came to me of Doing what I was talking about. Being a character who actually demonstrated in a fictional scenario what the actor’s voice sounds like when it is working effectively, and when it’s not – or at least when the actor is communicating her own insecurities and fears, rather than the character’s. 

When the PhD was finally done and dusted, I decided to take the advice of friends and colleagues who just loved the character, Dame June Bloom, and created a solo performance piece for her that could be easily transported. It still had to be entertaining, informative about some aspect of Shakespearean performance, and also bring more aspects of June to the fore.  I had a bunch of songs and poems I’d written over the years, kept in a folder in the bottom of a drawer, so I dug them out and lo and behold, they fitted June to a T!

When did you start learning ukulele?
Flloyd Kennedy at the Brisbane Festival
My father taught me three chords on the ukulele when I was seven, and I never forgot them.  I picked them up again three years ago, when I realised Dame June wanted to actually sing her songs, and I’ve been working hard ever since to extend those three chords. We’re up to about eight, not bad, eh?

Has Dame June ever crossed paths with that other Grande Dame, Edna?! 
Dame June has met a lot of famous people in her lifetime – she’s actually famous, a legend in her own mind, but I don’t believe Dame Edna features among them. She’s worked with Stanley Baxter though, and Rikki Fulton, two of Scotland’s most glorious clowns.

Who makes you laugh? 
My grand-dog, a Burmese mountain dog Maisie Blue, she's hilarious! I like actors who have something of the variety show about them, a quality you very often find that music hall quality in Scottish comic actors; the very dry humour of Scot Susan Calmen who you very often see on news quiz panels, and Billy Connolly's rough and sophisticated humour. I love watching Sheila Hancock, comedians Maureen Lipman, Joyce Grenfell, and of course Lucille Ball. 

What drives you to perform?
There have been times in my life when I've backed away from performing, but then I found myself as a nanny holding the children's hands watching from the wings, or as a dresser backstage, thinking "I could do that!" I think Anthony Hopkins put it so well when he spoke about performing and said "It's not something you do, it's something you are."

Yes! Because... is at The Bread And Roses Theatre (nearest tube Clapham Common on Northern Line) 4-8 April. Visit (click here) to book tickets or phone 020 8050 3025.

Postscript: for the wonderful review of opening night by theatre critic Siân Rowland of London Pub Theatres click here

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Chapter 178: Hikapee Theatre's Moonfall

Production photo credits: Robin Boot Photography (

On the card I gave my youngest for her 5th birthday last week, there was a button to make the rocket light up and sound a blast, but I'd been saving the card for so long, the battery had died. No matter. We used our imagination. Love fuels all sorts of adventures, and one of the things I love about this circus journey is that I can take the kids along for the ride. So it was a complete joy to take the girls to Jacksons Lane last Sunday to see Hikapee Theatre's Moonfall, the story of a trip to the moon, and back, starring Bryony Livesey and Edd Casey. My 8 year old had last seen Bryony in a class at Flying Fantastic, while I'd last seen Edd as a rope aerialist in NoFit State's Bianco on the Southbank, so it was fascinating for us to see them in a completely different incarnation. 

We were enchanted even before the performance began by the strings of light-bulbs hanging down the backdrop, twinkling away. The bespoke music score by Finn Anderson was also instrumental in setting the scene and, whether sounding an upbeat, pragmatic march or ethereal mellifluence, always hit the right note.

Bryony was a tomboy of a princess getting up to all sorts of tricks on a rope that hung down in the centre of her circle of green, joined by her erstwhile friend the prince. The play between the two was a joy to watch - there was an easy chemistry there that made for engaging characters and a seamless choreography in their acrobatics. We loved the aerial sequences and the innovative use of the rope as a vehicle for children's games whether as hiding place, skipping rope or swing, but also were huge fans of their clowning around. The girls fell about laughing when Edd morphed into the Queen Mum in her apron (never a drag!), and particularly identified with the daughter's resistance to having her hair brushed ("though you are not quite so dramatic when you brush ours, Mum").

However, while the prince was free to come and go as he pleased ("that's just not fair Mum!"), the princess was zipped up into a froth of apricot silk and marooned on her island, getting increasingly frustrated until she realised that she had the power to change the status quo. By making a break for the moon and her lunatic dream, she pushed past all sorts of invisible barriers that had been holding her back in the process. Her departure was a wake up call for the prince, who went in search of her and had his own odyssey. 

The aerial hoop of a moon was used to lyrical effect and for more wonderful acrobatics that drew delighted gasps from the audience. The use of circus skills brought home the message that the sky really is the limit, the one lesson I want my children to take with them in life. The girls gave Moonfall five bright shining stars, thank you Hikapee Theatre.

Moonfall is a work in progress and Hikapee Theatre will be taking it down to Great Yarmouth this summer for further development in a week's residency at Seachange ArtsClick here to see the video trailer from the original scratch version. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Chapter 177: On memory, melancholy and marking thyme

"There's rosemary for memory" said Mum, popping a sprig into the bouquet I brought her on Monday, as she arranged it in a vase. Our thoughts were with my aunt, my father's younger sister, who had died recently, which also brought home the need to steal more hours with my parents, and I have put circus training on hold for now while I visit them down in Hampshire one day a week instead. Thyme well spent. 

Photo credit: The Guardian
Driving down to see them on Monday, I was enjoying listening to Philip Glass' Akhnaten, the majestic music and exhilarating introduction gives me goosebumps every time. The opera opens the doors on the dawn of a new monotheistic age instigated by the eponymous Pharaoh, worshipping the sun god Aten.  It is a work to me that feels outside time, that speaks of reverence, awe and legacy, and it made a deep impression. I thought the depiction of Akhnaten's revolutionary and single-minded purpose was so well suited to the signature minimalism of Glass' music and the geometry of the set design and juggling patterns that I saw in the production at the English National Opera last year. I managed catch the final performance (see post on Akhnaten - click here) and snapped a picture for posterity from way up in the gods, inadvertently capturing Glass on stage with the cast as well, taking a final bow. So I was thrilled to hear later that day that Akhnaten has been nominated for an Oliver Award for Best New Opera Production and am keeping my fingers crossed. 

The following day I registered on Caitlin Moran's Twitter feed that Rik Mayall would have been 59. It prompted me to share an old post I had written when he died (see post Send in the Clowns - click here), and it bought the memories flooding back. I was touched by melancholy. In a surreal twist that evening, I registered that Mark @HamillHimself had liked the post, which in the kids' terms meant that Luke Skywalker liked Mummy's piece on Drop Dead Fred. A sweet moment to share.

Another moment that made me smile was watching my youngest daughter two days later, on her 5th birthday, hopscotch into school with her cupcakes (they just about survived!). She was beaming, delighting in her special day, and I was reminded of Ken Dodd's observation in an interview at the Slapstick Festival (see post An Audience with Ken Dodd - click here) that there are various grades of laughter, but top notch is that of the white, light noise of children at play.  

It was also the day of my aunt's funeral in the Isle of Wight, and back from the school run to an empty house I was overwhelmed by sadness at not being able to be there with my parents, siblings and cousins. My husband would have done the school pick up in the afternoon to let me go, only he was working in Miami for the week, catching up with a few of my Cuban friends in the process. It struck me then how physical grief is. I let it all pour out, then mentally poured myself a stiff mojito and booked myself in for a massage to look forward to the following day. It kept the blood flowing and the heart pumping.

That evening I was amused to find my daughter had brought home from school one of the Oxford Reading Tree books, entitled "Kipper the Clown" for her book at bedtime. #Circuseverywhere. It felt like the universe had a real sense of humour. I then sang her to sleep with her lullaby, the song that I have sung her ever since she was born, and even before. You are my sunshine. My only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey... 
Love shines eternal.

Post-script: Akhnaten has won the Oliver Award for Best New Opera Production. 9 April, 2017

Friday, 3 March 2017

Chapter 176: Lumo Company's Lola

All photo credits: Chantal Guevara of  Cloud Dance Festival (click here)

The Place to be on Saturday night was in Euston, home to the contemporary dance festival Resolution 2017. On the last night of the festival, which had showcased over 70 different experimental pieces, I went to see tightwire artist Hanna Moisala and actor Heidi Niemi who together have formed the contemporary circus and physical theatre Lumo Company. They are both from Finland, which informs the emotive landscape of a piece that is darkly strange and fiercely beautiful. This first work in progress sharing of Lola, presented by Jacksons Lane, was a shockingly funny and tenderly moving exploration of memory loss and the resulting isolation through the depiction of the symbiotic relationship between the two women. 

Heidi was the body losing her mind, expletives slipped out and language slipped away, the functionality of objects escaped her, and her frustration was palpable. A piece of string, an aide-memoire, was slurped up like a noodle of spaghetti for starters, chewed up with animal gusto, while a musical instrument was potentially the main course. The plasticity of Heidi's face, her blank "chewing the cud" stare and the absurdity of her actions captured both the comedy and pathos of her condition, as anyone who has had a loved one suffering from any form of dementia would recognise. Hanna was the memory reasserting herself, punishingly so.  Stapling notes to a memory board, there was a collective gasp from the audience as Hanna turned and then stapled the final one to Heidi's bare bottom. Maybe there is a case for shock tactics resuscitating memory, it will certainly be a graphic moment I will never forget. 

There were moments of unspeakable tenderness and comfort between them as well, including my favourite acrobalance movement when Heidi took a running leap into Hanna's arms and in the catch wrapped herself round her horizontally. The use of a skipping rope was clever, doubling as a whip and then used for a beautifully choregraphed acro-skipping duet. I found echoes here in the aesthetic and dynamics of shibari, the Japanese bondage art form that inspired Hanna's solo piece Wiredo

I loved the visual progression in the work from string, to rope, to finally tightwire. Where better to display the precarious nature of memory loss? As Hanna stepped out on the wire, she incarnated the zen focus that we all need in our lives if we want to hold onto reality. It was a solo piece, and yet Heidi was present as an observer, watching her mind at work, and at one point standing under the wire her head became Hanna's balancing point. The audience sat in rapt concentration, as though willing Hanna to safety, but the sheer grace of a high splits kick at one point broke through our studied silence to elicit a huge round of applause. It was a breath-taking finale to a piece that is a study in tension, testifying to both the power of mind over body, and its fragility. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Chapter 175: Jair Ramirez' Sugarman

All photo credits: Lidia Crisafulli

Resolution at The Place is a contemporary dance festival, now in its 27th year, that showcases short pieces of around twenty minutes long, experimenting with form and pushing boundaries. A great platform then for artists fusing contemporary circus and dance in their performance. 

I went on Thursday to see Jair Ramirez' Sugarman, a piece in which he grapples with the claustrophobia of everyday urban working life and overcomes stumbling blocks in his path in his own inimitable style. Sugarman has evolved from Rise Above (click here), presented at Jacksons Lane Hangwire last year, where Jair emerged from a culture of rubbish and addiction in his native Colombia, set to the theme tune from Narcos, while the year before Jair won the prestigious Circus Maximus contest for circus talent with an act  (click here) where he spun out of a floor of powder to soar to new heights. 

The name Sugarman refers to any addiction, whether it be coke, alcohol, cigarettes or the killer sugar, used to escape the daily grind. For Sugarman, Jair's outside eye was Lucho Guzman, a Colombian clown, also one of the Clowns Without Borders (click here), who was in the UK for the book launch of Barnaby King's Clowning as Social Performance in Colombia: Ridicule and Resistance (click here), in which he features. I should therefore not have been surprised to see Jair's natural clown at play in this latest incarnation. But I was surprised. And delighted. 

The stage was set with Ali Hunter's atmospheric lighting and a swathe of dry ice that conjured up a metropolis, while the Latin melody located it firmly in Colombia. In walked the Sugarman in a dressing-gown, brushing his teeth, with rebel feet that just wanted to salsa on out. But he is prisoner of a murky grey world, longing for the blue skies of Aldo Zolev's superb track Azul (see below), a puppet of routine like the suit that hangs there waiting for him. 

I loved the acrobatics that played on that and brought the suit to life, the hands that became feet, the legs that became arms, the briefcase that opened up into a typewriter, and the loop of a strap that was both tie and potential gallows' noose. Arresting images were threaded through with a wonderful humour, involving the audience at one point in an amusing fort da game with an apple, and blended with supreme aerial skills. The beautiful air walking was a lesson in surreal control, as was the siesta snatching, simply suspended by a neck, an ankle and sheer force of will. It was as though each time an obstacle presented itself, Jair's dexterity and innovation on the straps enabled him to circumnavigate it, so that by the end of the day, when the wheel had come full circle (all too quickly for me!) and the Sugarman was back in his dressing-gown, toothbrush in hand, he was no longer hostage to the norm, but triumphant. 

Jair Ramirez' Sugarman was presented by Jacksons Lane at The Place as part of Resolution 2017.

Music video for Aldo Zolev's Azul:

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Chapter 174: Chivaree Circus' Becoming Shades

All photos:

Last Friday at The Vault Festival I saw Chivaree Circus' Becoming Shades, the creation of Edward Gosling and directed by Laurane Marchive, and I cannot think of a more atmospheric venue that charts Persephone's journey into the Underworld by way of a darkly sexy, immersive circus promenade. Just my cup of pomegranate tea. I've been going to the Vault Festival for a few years now and each time experience a frisson of delight coming out of the busy concourse, skirting round the side of the main building, always with a nagging doubt that this is the right path, until arriving at the stairs that lead into a yawning, cavernous mouth of graffiti, ready to swallow me whole. It does feel like crossing over the threshold into the London Below of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and has the magic of an alternative space where you are never quite sure what adventure is in store. What show could be more apt?

"Here's a mask. Please put in on when instructed and keep it on for the duration of the show." We opened up a little cellophane package that revealed a black mask to wear over the lower half of our face. I was amused to hear one punter had tried using it as a blindfold. Maybe he wanted it 50 shades darker, who knows?! Punchdrunk from other immersive experiences, I liked the illusion of anonymity the mask gave, and the anticipation of interaction as one by one we were becoming shades. 

At the back of the crowd I caught glimpses of a creature up ahead that by rights should have been rather sinister, with glowing rings for eyes, a gas mask of a face and light-tipped fingers, but who from the get-go amused us with his mime to a retro voiceover advising the audience on appropriate etiquette. This was the skeletal Charon, Malik Ibheis' Ferryman reeling us in with his clowning and ushering us over to the dark side, aided by his Hounds of Hell, three bitches, fierce and bold, played by Rosie Bartley, Jessica Pearce and Isobel Midnight. In an interlude of comic relief later, on his pier, complete with deckchair and thermos, the Ferryman attempted to demonstrate the steps involved in taming one of the Beasts. Of course he didn't manage it and I smiled -  "no heavy petting" had been part of the in-flight instructions earlier after all.  I liked the re-gendering of Cerebus, shades of circus strongwomen who sniffed around the audience and then took centre stage in a fire fan dance that was as dazzling in choreography as the patterns of flames were mesmerising. And when at the end of the act Hells' Belles disappeared through an arched doorway at the back, it was all I could do not to follow and explore what lay beyond.

There wasn't a textual narrative as such, but there was a sense of progression as a river of music carried us along Persephone's journey into the Underworld, and the live concert, a bespoke score created by Sam West, was worth a ticket in its own right. I loved the Scottish inflections in the stunning vocals of Sam and Becks Johnstone that laced with Celtic fire lines that spoke both of the torture of love and the need to resist the urge to lose heart. "The only mistake is not to love, the only mistake is giving up". At the end of the first week of a new presidency where it feels that the world is going to hell, that sentiment had a particular resonance: #lovetrumpshate. The costumes and the special effects were lush - there was a pomegranate that opened in two and bathed Persephone's face in a warm, red glow; silken robes that billowed out into majestic wings; a headdress of laurel and feathers; votive candles handed out among the crowd, touches of remembrance... all served to endow the performance with a sense of rite and rituality. 

In a deceptively gentle start Persephone took the floor in an acrobatic dance, then partnered with hand-balancer par excellence Craig Gadd as a broodingly kohl-eyed Hades, who later performed a wickedly seductive routine, casually swiping bites out of an apple in one hand (before tossing it to the dogs!) all the while inverted on canes held up by the other arm. But it was in the aerial sequences that Rebecca Rennison as Persephone really soared. Her solo on silks was a powerful testimony to the fact that she was her own agent, exciting, strong and sleek. A duet later was both poignant and intensely sexy: I loved Hades turning the ends of the silks to set Persephone into a spin, her spectacular drops that reflected the lurches of love, how Hades was able to slip above her and make use of a novel foot-loop at the top of the silks to twist and turn, and I enjoyed the thrill of the acrobatic catches that indicated total surrender and trust. Their relationship appeared as though through a glass darkly, lovers no longer in the land of the living, but rather revenants of passion. Persephone's finale in a flaming hoop showed her mettle, an inner steel forged in the fires of hell, climaxing in a spinning toe hang (high above a concrete floor) that had my friend and I grabbing onto each other, thrilled and terrified in equal measure.

                                             The Girl is dead. The Queen reigns supreme. And a triumphant smile owned that she knows it.

Becoming Shades spoke to all those who have loved, and lost, and endure, taking its cue from James Joyce's The Dead: "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." Wise words. Don't look back.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Chapter 173: Thom Monckton/Kallo Collective: Only Bones

"Thom Monckton just filled the whole room with super talent and energy by using just one square meter."
- Heidi Niemi (Lumo Company)


The stars were aligned the other evening for a trip to Soho Theatre. At the top of the escalators at Leicester Square, off to the Mime Festival*, I bumped into a friend bound for the Vault Festival, travelling in the opposite direction, both of us on the right track. Red lanterns festooned China Town, celebrating the Year of the Rooster, and I was on my way to see Lecoq (ze rooster?!) trained Thom Monckton in Only Bones.  I had been looking forward to seeing this show since summer, hearing about it on Twitter from those reporting back from the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was a huge hit. Actually, I think I first heard mention on Gandini Juggling's feed, which strikes me as apt, as Thom Monckton and Gemma Tweedie created the show for the Finnish Kallo Collective, and if I were to describe Europe in circus terms the Finns would be the jugglers, intelligent, curious and oddball. Gravity pulls.

It struck me, as I took my seat, that the last time I had been at Soho Theatre was to see Trygve Wakenshaw's show "Nautilus" last year. Like Thomas, Trygve a New Zealander who trained in physical theatre in France (at Gaulier). Both guys are brilliantly funny, but in different ways, as you would expect from performers whose comedy derives from their physicality - Trygve is tall and blond, Thomas is medium-height and ginger.  Actually, I had no idea what to expect. I log reviews but don't read them until afterwards if I have any intention of going to see a show. And if you haven't seen Only Bones yet, but are intending to, I'd recommend you do the same.

Hands materialised beneath a spotlight. Only hands. They flexed and rippled, sending waves through the ether as patterns morphed into storytelling. I loved the jellyfish bobbing along, and when the hands cupped it felt like watching a ball of energy materialise between them. That is the true power and the art of mime: to make visible the invisible. The soundscape was subtle, a barely perceptible undercurrent, then now and again Thom's own voice would join in creating its own special effect, but through noises, not words. The use of a spotlight was clever as with a click the stage could be plunged into darkness to cut to the next scene, and whip out a prop. A threesome of feet fought for space in the bed, until an imposter hand was revealed to be the interloper. Knobbly knees revealed their own funny bones, hands tangoed in a flirtation of red nail varnish and then found love in the beating heart of a glove. That was one of the most beautiful images I shall always carry with me. 

I wondered for a moment if we would see the rest of the body. I was curious. What did Thom have for a face?! Turned with his back to the audience, hands played with his hoodie to suggest a head, but there was nothing there. And then. Then turned round a kind, generous face and I knew he would not disappoint. Playing with a cartoonish plasticity of expressions, Thom proceeded to discombobulate. There is no other word for it. It is extraordinary the way he can disassociate parts of the body, only bones, with a life of their own. He brought the audience into play, throwing out animal impersonations and inviting us to suggest more. The way the lighting was set up it felt as though Thom could see the face of every member of the audience and the sensation reminded me, not unpleasantly, of being back in a warm-up exercise in my very first clowning improv class. Still, I swallowed my voice, not sure why as with Thom you feel in safe hands, but it was probably because all around were so vocal there was really no need for me to join in the fray (or bray!). 

Throwing, and catching, cues, to the side, was Gemma. Both a discreet presence and integral to the performance, she was the outside eye who was inside the frame, the backbone to Thom's funny bone. Read the programme afterwards, there are some brilliant anecdotes that give some insight into their humour and creative synergy, quite some double act. At the end, there is a line. Just one humble line that really was a slam-dunk in a tour de force of a performance. I'll say no more. You have until 4 February to get your body over to Only Bones at Soho Theatre ( - click here).

Click here for teaser trailer.

Performed by: Thom Monckton
Created by: Thom Monckton and Gemma Tweedie
Sound design: Tuomos Norvio
Production: Kallo Collective
Co-production: Aurora Nova

*London International Mime Festival (LIMF): (click here)

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Chapter 172: Les Antliaclastes: Here Lies Shakespeare

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare, To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."
Inscription on the tombstone of William Shakespeare
Photo: Jean-Pierre Estournet
Shakespeare's epitaph is a record set in stone that grave-robbers have ever been a nuisance historically, as I was reminded the other day watching period drama "Taboo". In the opening episode gravediggers ask for extra money from relatives of a deceased gentleman as payment to inter the body deeper in the ground as a safety precaution. It is a series set in the early 19th Century, at a time of bitter dispute over boundaries between Great Britain and the United States. A few decades later, American humorist Mark Twain would enter into another turf war in "Is Shakespeare Dead?" asserting through a number of compelling arguments that the Stratford Shakespeare did not write the literary canon ascribed to him and that the awkward words on the tombstone comprise the only poem with which he can genuinely be credited. Talk about digging up the dirt in sacrosanct ground. Taboo indeed! I caught up with Twain's short semi-autobiographical work, after learning that Les Antliaclastes, a puppet company based in France, took it as the point de départ for their show Here lies Shakespeare, part of London International Mime Festival.

The show came onto my radar just before Christmas thanks to a chance conversation with Thomas, the brother of one of the puppeteers, while we were watching our daughters take a tumble again, and again, down the bouncy slide at Aircraft Circus Winter Festival (post on the Aircraft Circus - click here). I live for those moments of random connections that lead you down a path you wouldn't have happened on otherwise, for while I am a regular at Jacksons Lane, and well aware of the diversity of their programming, I struggle to keep up with all the circus-related happenings they have there, let alone check out any of their other delights.  

Photo: Jean-Pierre Estournet
Still, this time I made an exception, and I was rewarded with one of the most triumphantly creative, fantastically surreal and exquisitely crafted, challenging shows I have ever seen. The structure paid homage to Shakespearean plays in terms of having a Prologue, three acts and an Epilogue, based on themes rather than a linear narrative. In texture it had the feel of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream in the mix of oneiric images and scatalogical humour, think Ariel meets Bottom, with cameos from Yorrick, and Hamlet's gravediggers. "Wondrous strange" pretty much covers it, by turns irreverent, cynical and moving.

I was in awe of the craftsmanship of the puppets, and the special effects that gave the piece a cinematic aesthetic. I was not surprised to find out later that Artistic Director Patrick Sims came to puppets via studies in film and animation, as the influence was clear. I fell in love with the exquisite warrior Pallas Athena, and the fish revealed to be a mermaid, experienced a fascinated revulsion at the carrion birds in Elizabethan dress, goggled at the squid and was impressed by the verisimilitude and dignity of Karloff's Frankenstein's monster. I was mesmerised by the concept and depiction of a wormhole where a filament snaked out through strobe lighting, and marvelled at the sheer ingenuity of a set full of surprises that shrunk in half the space at Jacksons Lane and caused me to lose all sense of perspective. The soundscape too was clever, ranging from extracts of familiar Shakespeare speeches and narratives on the (his)story of Shakespearean idolatry to experimental electronic Elizabethan music that gave it an other-worldly feel. 

Photo via Steph Brotchie's Instagram @thescruffian
In the Prologue an alien skeleton rooted around an excavation site digging up bones and potatoes. Simple movement fascinated me, the way the skeleton could lift up a potato for instance, or the way he scuttled across the dirt, gollum-like. The humble potato was a recurring theme. It was obviously a nod to the arrival of the potato on the scene in Elizabethan times, spoils of the New World, an emblem of the past, that was then set into a time capsule and launched into the future, along with Shakespeare's works. As a satellite transmitted Shakespeare's words out into the universe, I was struck by how the signifier "Shakespeare" is so important to the story humanity tells about itself, holding his works up as proof of our civilisation, broadcast to all and any alien nations willing to listen. But Here lies Shakespeare begged the question: have we created a monster? We met a giant with a sackcloth over his head, reciting an emotive discourse from The Elephant Man, whose deformity was revealed to be an oversized potato for a head. Uncovering that was both funny and strangely moving. Could Mr Potato Head just as well have written the sonnets? The theme of alienation continued when a pint-sized potato-head sang "Are you lonely tonight?" before reciting Jacques' soliloquy "All the world's a stage..." from As You Like It. [Citing that same speech, how could the author of such eternally beautiful words have so prosaic a tombstone, argued Twain].

Photo: Marc Mandril-Ferrario
Later Frankenstein's Monster, impossibly dwarfing the space, took tea in front of a doll's house of a replica Stratford-on-Avon, with a doll in Elizabethan dress that was revealed to be a monkey once the mask was lifted, tail peeping out from under its skirts.

It was a world where nothing was quite what it seemed. Stratford-on-Avon was not so much a real town as a monument to consumerism, drowning us in an endless cycle of commercialised shit: my stomach turned as Shakespeare's corpse was put through a mincer and squelched into sausages, and when the back end of a cow crapped almost interminably on a merry-go-round of tiny shopping trolleys, rounded off with a few sulphuric puffing farts. Sir Toby Belched, I thought. The theme of pollution was continued later in a beautiful scene conjuring up an underwater realm where a Beast rescued a Beauty of a fish-cum-mermaid floundering in netting and all manner of rubbish. It was poignant and ephemeral. 

Most eloquent was a tableau vivant where Shakespeare's portrait appeared to be writing. But who was pulling the strings? A Stratford swan peered over his shoulder, nabbed the quill and carried on writing until the text wrote itself, while potatoes rained down from the gods, like some tuberosum ex machina. In the final act, we were back at the excavation site, via an ingenious shadow play, to see the unearthing of another colossosal dinosaur, a reference to Twain's observation that piecing together Shakespeare's life was like reconstructing a dinosaur with a few bits of bones and plaster. The fraud of a brontosaurus, that was really an apatosaurus with the wrong head on, was here given Shakespeare's head to drive the point home, and wreaked all sorts of havoc. It struck me then that Les Antliaclastes have something of Monty Python about them. That Stratford player, Guillem Shakespear, he's not the Messiah, he's just a very naughty boy... 

Image: Centre Culturel Yves Fuert

Thanks to Les Antliaclastes, my son and I have been enjoying Mark Twain on Audible together (next stop Huckleberry Finn!). It did feel rather like sharing the news that Father Christmas doesn't exist, even if Horrible Histories had already paved the way, but the humour softened the blow and it gave us plenty to talk about. My son observed afterwards: "The thing is Mum, I know Mark Twain is probably right, but I'm still rooting for Shakespeare." Me too. I'm a romantic, you see, and the myth of Shakespeare is my type of humbug. And yet despite my resistance to the fact that the Stratford Shakespeare was a ham actor who's no Bacon, I found Here lies Shakespeare to be a darkly beautiful, carnal, vibrant testimony to Shakespeare's legacy, all the more so for being a provocative one. 

Here lies Shakespeare

Patrick Sims: Direction, design, puppets, performer 
Josephine Biereye: Masks, costumes, puppets 
Richard Penny: Design, puppets, performer 
Puppets and masks: Josephine Biereye and Patrick Sims
Camille Lamy: Costumes 
Oriol Vilodomiu & Karinne Dumont: Sound creation, design
Nicolas Hubert: Design, performer 
Jesse Philip Watson: Design, performer 
Raùl Berrueco: Video creation 
Olivier Francfort & Sophie Barraud: Lighting creation 
Sophie Barraud: Stage management

With: Patrick Sims, Richard Penny, Nicolas Hubert, Evandro Serodio