Photo by Gon Fernandez.
I went to the opening night of the Circus Space graduate ensemble show Happy Families at Jacksons Lane, and boy oh boy. The last show is on 6 July, so I wanted to quickly dash off a review and share it with you while you still have a chance to see it.
Because I highly recommend it. I wish that the show was running for longer so that I could have taken more time to write a review that did the show justice. This show was a real gem in that it broke a lot of circus stereotypes that I find unpalatable, and it reminded me that circus is about the joy of witnessing little miracles.
Happy Families tells a story
I am a sucker for circus shows that tell stories. Which sucks for me, as most circus shows don’t bother.
Go see Cirque du Soleil, go see Zippos, and the show format is mostly the same: mini circus acts lasting a few minutes each that have nothing to do with each other, with the Ringmaster and clowns providing transitions between acts so as to create some false sense of cohesion. This is how circus has been done for decades, and it has its benefits; acts are easily replaceable, performers can more conveniently sell their acts whatever the venue, and the audience gets a nice variety of acts to ooh and aah over. Except that by the 4th or 5th act, the audience becomes numb to the mini miracles that through painstaking effort appear effortless. Circus becomes perceived as cheap thrill. This show format is a death trap!
Happy Families is not like that. The show tells a story about several rather dysfunctional families coexisting in a trailer park. There is the jaded father and his hyperactive daughter, a gluttonous couple that takes their love for food a little too far for comfort, three quirky crooks who steal from each other but are also charmingly codependent on each other, the jester-like Park Keeper and his dog Spike, and a pair of mischievous Jacks who have basically stolen my heart. They are manipulative and weird and probably the worst neighbours you could have, but I believed in them. I got to know the them, I could relate to them, and I cared about their successes and failures. That’s the power of stories.
Happy Families is a modern circus show with a Big Top feel
You know how a lot of circus shows lately are super sleek, polished and a bit airy fairy? I like that, OK? As an ex-dance student, I find it comforting to see the lines of the body elegantly extended by the limbs, and I quite enjoy getting distracted by the sight of perfectly arched and pointed feet (Beth Williams, your feet are very distracting). I enjoyed these aspects of circus during the Circus Space graduates’ showcase of their devised pieces earlier this year, which I understand is more about technical prowess than showmanship.
In contrast, the Happy Families ensemble show is where showmanship takes centre stage. The stage in question was in Jacksons Lane, which is one of my favourite venues because it is so cosy and intimate. The small stage was filled nearly to the brim with props, including a couple of sheds and a drum set on the ground and various aerial apparatuses and laundry hanging from the ceiling. Somehow, 13 performers managed to navigate through this organised chaos while loaded down with an assortment of bright and patterned baggy costumes, masks, and accessories that were not at all conducive to showing off the lines of their bodies, but added a ton of character. According to the programme, Circus Space worked with the Arts University Bournemouth for the design and making of the costumes – I take my hats off to them. The props and costumes lent the show a charming Big Top feel, and I’m sure the costumes in particular provided a worthy challenge for the performers.
The costumes and props also complemented the choreography brilliantly. While I understand that circus artists generally work alone to devise and perfect a high-energy and high-accuracy routine lasting a few minutes, my guess is that the choreographer of this show used more modern improv techniques typically used in drama and dance. The choreographer probably grouped performers together, tasked them with telling a story about their family unit, and then wove all the mini stories together into something complex and satisfying. I can’t imagine that this was easy for the students, but what a great skill to learn.
Happy Families has a healthy disregard for boundaries
What impressed me the most about Happy Families is how it blended circus, drama, music and dance in a way that formed a seamless, cohesive, wonderful whole.
It is notoriously difficult to blend circus with other performing arts in a way that works. I’ve seen acts that allegedly blend trapeze and dancing, and this usually means a few minutes of dancing followed by a few minutes of trapeze where the two parts are distinct and bear little relation to each other. But I applaud the attempt. If you can play in a bigger sandpit, then why not? Especially when circus performers are generally an extraordinarily multitalented bunch.
Having seen these graduates’ technical showcase earlier in the year, I had concluded that they were all born without a single inelegant bone in their body (nodding at Ben Brown and Beth here). So to see all of them bumbling about acting silly and making me laugh was already a surprise. The fact that many of them played a musical instrument too, like Helen Orford on harp, James McCambridge on drums, and Lydia Harper on bass, or had an unusual skill like Arce Lopez Gutierrez’s puppeteering, that was pretty special. I was especially impressed by Tom Ball’s soulful singing (all I remember hearing him say before in the show was “Sorry for the wardrobe malfunction!” before throwing away his shirt to do his static trapeze act topless). I was very charmed by Heidi Hickling-Moore’s beautiful face and her double rope act with the goofily handsome Gonzalo Basualdo; their hurt-comfort double rope act was funny and also deeply touching. And then there’s Louis Gift, the friendly giant, whose bromance-y acrobalancing act with Beren D’Amico has stolen my breath away again and again (when I saw them in Circus Maximus, I nearly screamed, “Let me have your babies!” but stopped myself because I’d have to qualify that statement with “If I weren’t married and you agree to pay child support, that is!” which would probably be distracting).
Not only did this show cross boundaries between performance arts, I feel that it also knocked down barriers between circus disciplines. Maybe this is only my imagination, but I feel that there are invisible walls between tumblers, aerialists, and equilibrists. This divide extends even to the Adult evening courses at Circus Space, where we have Open Studio in the last class of term and we can invite friends and family to come watch. The aerialists are always, “let’s wear sparkly costumes and put on a show!” while the tumblers are all, “bah, leave us alone to perfect our round-offs.” I don’t really hear things from the equilibrists – are they a quiet bunch?
So what I found really uplifting about this show is the interaction between the three disciplines. There’s this part where Matt Green was juggling 5 or so balls (I lost count) and creating gorgeous patterns in the air. Helen on the ground and Tom perched on his trapeze kept snatching the balls away, and there’s this bit where Tom passed a ball back to Matt by a maneuver on the trapeze which had the ball rolling around his body and back into Matt’s hands. It made me happy to witness something so harmonious.
And then there’s this really beautiful part where Beth was swinging back and forth on the aerial straps and contorting her body into improbable shapes. But get this: while Beth was doing this, Beren was running back and forth across the stage, mimicking Beth’s swinging movements, while simultaneously performing acrobatics, creating shapes on the ground that echoed what Beth was doing in the air. I nearly imploded with joy.
This show is playful (hi Spike), grimy (see Beren’s socks), noisy (go Heidi), sexy (ooh la la Beth), sometimes unflattering in the best way possible (love your costume Helen) and has an uncomfortable disregard for the three-second rule (I’m thinking of Lynn Scott and James here). There are so many memorable details and gestures, like Beren wielding his styling comb like a knife and trying to fight off Louis by, you know, swiping at Louis’ curls. But I guess I should stop with the spoilers now.
In short, if this show is an indication of where circus is heading, then I’m a happy bunny.
- Wednesday 3 July – 8pm
- Thursday 4 July – 8pm
- Friday 5 July – 3pm and 8pm
- Saturday 6 July – 3pm and 8pm