The round stage is 3.6 metres across. Tiny. And it’s bare, save 8 lightbulbs swinging over it. And I’m in the very front row, almost pressed up against the bare wood.
I’m in Limbo, the show, and also in a state of unknowing. This is scary. The performers are going to be on top of me, bearing down on me.
A stout Tim Burton dressed in a white suit growing nascent feathery wings stomps on stage with the mic to his mouth. He summons a grimacing man in a black suit onto the stage with a series of gestures and some strangely contorted electronic sounds. The haunted man bends over backwards to please….literally.
And we’re off into Limbo – purgatory if you will – but sheer heaven for us punters.
Limbo was a massive hit down in Oz earlier this year and now it’s the centrepiece of the London Wonderground Festival, playing at the Spiegeltent most nights this sultry summer. The brainchild of director Scott Maidment who brought the groundbreaking Cantina to the same venue last year, the show features six all-round circus performers plus the wild and wacky musical stylings of the wonderfully named Sxip Shirey.
Indeed, it’s the music that hits you first, or rather the narrative soundscape of Shirey’s voice electronically morphed to scare you witless as he plays the puppet-master, Satan fallen from heaven, calling all the lost souls to perform for him, for us. Then the band proper strikes up and we’re in Spiegeltent home-territory for a while. Can a tent have a musical theme? I suppose so, as the Spieg’s is definitely Bavarian Oompah crossing the road to avoid a New Orleans funeral just as Tom Waits pokes his head from the coffin to start singing.
A bowler-hatted Danik Abishev balances with his hands on five poles, and he’s so close I can see every muscle, sinew, bead of sweat as he smiles and flirts with the crowd while hopping from one pole to another.
You think a horse is about to canter up to the stage but it’s Hilton Denis, tapping around the perimeter of the darkened tent, while Jonathan Nosan (The Haunted Man) adds menace and a touch of obssessive sexual longing to the piece, plus some ‘ooh, ahh’ bodily contortions.
Standout performer is the absolutely gorgeous Frenchman Mikael Bres who takes pole dancing to new heights and even clothed, made me want to lick him. Curling around the pole at the very top of the tent, he drops a feather and suddenly slides down to the bottom, catching it and halting abruptly six inches before he smashes into the floor. It’s heart-stopping stuff, especially when he winks seductively to you as he uncurls himself and takes a bow.
The performers jump on and off stage, joining each other for interludes between the main acts, interludes that turn into ‘turns’ in their own right. It’s seductive, sexy, and close-up.
I wouldn’t usually bother to recommend paying more for ringside seats (these are £40-£50 a pop), but with this show it’s different. You’ll want to be as near the action as the front row will take you. Sit in the cheap seats (£10-£17) and you’ll be just close enough: sit in a booth at the back (£180-£200 for up to 10 people) and you’ll feel like life is happening elsewhere.
The one act that includes all seats equally is a pole swinging piece where three super fit male bodies sway above you, bearing down on you, touching you, sweating on you. You look up in awe, mouth open, hypnotized by the motion. Will they crash into each other in the middle of the stage? Of course not: it ends with a mid-air three-way hug, then darkness.
Then fire! Lots of fire! This is when it pays to be way back in a booth as it felt like my eyebrows were in danger of being singed off. Inexplicably, this wasn’t the climax of the show even though it would have made a spectacular ending. After this there’s a rather neat trick featuring an eye-watering spike, and then there’s Evelyne Allard looping in and out of chains high above the stage which was the only time my attention wandered slightly.
Throughout the show, the music loops and curls and kicks and stamps and cajoles. ‘Jank’ is the word Shirey uses to describe the noise: it’s jacked up junk with an electric sousaphone dub step baseline. With the whole cast involved in its production, it’s delicious. Countless conventional instruments are used along with bicycle bells, marbles rolling around in a glass bowl, and Shirey’s manipulated voice and harmonica, together making a sound as delicate as a feather landing on the stage or as rollerballing as freight train about to run you over.
The songs can be heartbreaking, as in Will You Catch Me When I Fall which accompanies Bres’s Chinese pole dancing, or rambunctiously rabble-rousing. The soundtrack carries the show along with a momentum all of its own, and there’s a surprise near the end when musician Mick Stuart starts singing. His plaintive, clear voice should have been used more.
I’m not usually one to recommend circus in any shape or form. Honestly, I’m one of those annoying sods who sits there with a stony look on her face as if to say ‘seen it all before’ (typical reviewer). But even I was won over by Limbo. Completely won over. I came out into the warm night air of the South Bank feeling like I’d really seen a Show with a capital S (not forgetting the E and the X).
I can’t recommend this sensual, sassy, enervating spectacular enough. Miss it and you really will be in purgatory, and don’t rely on me to pray for your circus soul.
Five stars *****
Where: London Wonderground, Spiegeltent, Southbank Centre, London
When: Various shows until September 29
Tickets: from £10-£50 (£180-£220 for a booth for up to ten people)
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