Is it on to compare a circus with a circus? After all, these days circus is a broad church – a very broad church – so broad in fact that the South Bank feels confident enough to run three ring-based entertainment shows over the summer in its temporary tents, expecting each to make a profit.
I’ve now seen two of them – Limbo and, last night, Flown featuring The Pirates of the Carabina – and they couldn’t have been more different. Limbo is all New York roar, fire and chutzpah, while Flown is all Northern European angst and eccentricity. They’re both excellent in their own way, and which one you like the most will depend on both your mindset and, no doubt, the mood you’re in at the time.
Flown starts off hesitantly and carries on in the same vein. Their shtick is amateurism coupled with existential mumbling monologues, but don’t let that put you off. It creates a unique atmosphere and, although not leaving enough room for many wow moments, carries you along on a cloud of nostalgic melancholia.
Indeed, the piece starts off so casually that you’re not sure if it’s actually begun. The sound of waves breaking greets you as you walk into the Udderbelly, as a photographer in stripy socks and frock coat walks around taking photos, and a woman sets out a picnic at one side of the stage. The musician sets up a hypnotic tape loop with the line “I’m checking my microphone”, adding the odd “it’s late, you should be seated by now” into it, cheekily. A woman in a black dress with a sleek bob who looks uncannily like Queenie from Blackadder bursts a bulb of resin in a great cloud.
And we’re off. Sort of. It’s more of a whimper than a bang, as the acrobatics start.
They’re a ragbag of a bunch. There’s Shaena Brandel who spins around in her aerial hoop, often and inexplicably balancing an ironing board. Then there’s Laura Moy, a tiny woman in white tattered clothes that bring bandages to mind. She alternates between swooping Chinese pole work and clinging on to the other performers for dear life. It’s as if she’s weighing them down; like a black dog depression, only white and wearing shades.
Throughout, there are mumbled monologues into the mics from all the performers in turn. “By the end of this tour I’ll have paid off all my debts,” says musician Tia Kalmaru. “I thought this show was going to be about planes.”
Finnish Jaakko Tenhunen, a wizard in a man-sized hoop, rambles on about how he hates Britain: “I hate your weather. And I hate your men in their skinny jeans. I want to punch them below the knees.” He looks at the ground, as if unable to face us. But then he’s up and in his hoop, spinning and looking for all the world like an animated Vitruvian Man, while the girl in white clings to his middle, naturally.
I have a Boy George moment when Laura Moy steps centre stage. Boy or girl? Dressed as a human Barbie, with a rictus grin, curly blonde princess wig, white sparkly tutu dress and hotel slippers, she’s smothered in so much make-up that it’s hard to tell her sex (and although it doesn’t matter, I defy anyone to not try to guess). She’s the klutz, the comedy, the ditzy act who’s forever setting herself up for a fall. And she’s the only one of the characters who has any confidence, albeit an extremely fragile one (tears come easily to her).
Her entrances are spectacularly odd: she’s pushed along in a chariot pulled by a foot high toy horse. Each time she tries a trick with the aerial silks and each time she fails a little high pitched ‘oh’ emerges from her mouth, as if she can’t quite believe she fell on her arse again.
While in Limbo, the music is so brash it could strip paint, in Flown it’s English sea-shanty time, with haunting melodies provided by Kalmaru, a Welsh/Estonian multi-instrumentalist who is as deadpan as the rest of the crew, and then some. Sometimes the music is barely there, sometimes it’s out front, but it always matches what’s going on on stage perfectly.
Towards the end the music gets rockier, with even a ‘Flown does Tom Waits’ number thrown in just to knock everything a little more off-kilter, which involves a large megaphone, a trolley being pushed slowly across the stage and a song called ‘I Love my Boots’. It works, but only just and once you’ve seen Limbo, you realise The Pirates of the Carabina are skating on thin ice by going in this direction and that perhaps they should leave the grungy in yer face stuff to the Yank musicians in the tent next door.
The set is a problem. It’s a scruffy hotchpotch of what you’d find at a circus, but that means there’s no focus and no blank canvas to show off the acts. It gets distracting, as does the dual spotlight, where there’s two things happening on the far sides of the stage. Which one to look at? The acrobats or the singers? And the lighting’s not half as dramatic as it could be, but then you have to sacrifice things like that if you’re going after the ‘we’ve just thrown this little thing together and we’re not brilliant at it’ look.
And who has the last word? Why, Barbie of course, in a thank you speech worthy of Gwyneth Paltrow….
What: Flown performed by The Pirates of the Carabin
Where: Udderbelly, South Bank, London
When: Various times until June 22
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