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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Nights at the Circus
Lyric Hammersmith January-February 2006 and touring

Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre is committed to two production principles: first, the development of work through cast improvisations and rehearsal games, with the credited authors (here, Tom Morris and director Emma Rice, from the novel by Angela Carter) laying out a beginning outline and documenting the results; and second, the employment of all the theatre's performance tools, from music to acrobatics.

When it works, the result is extraordinary - last season's Tristan and Yseult at the National Theatre was one of the year's highlights.

When it doesn't, the result can be a bit of a mess, with theatrically exciting moments clashing against each other, and against dud moments, instead of coalescing.

And that, I fear, is what has happened here. There are bits of Nights at the Circus that are wonderful, but there's no whole - no core of focus, theme or tone to keep the thing from flying off in a half-dozen different directions.

I've not read the novel, but the outline Morris and Rice drew from it involves a nineteenth-century woman with wings who is a trapeze performer and the reporter who comes to debunk her as a fraud but falls under her spell and becomes a circus clown to follow her around Europe.

Warning bells may be ringing for some of you at this point, and yes, much of the first half plays like a minor variation on the Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel, with the emphasis on the humiliations the reporter-clown endures in his obsession.

But then the play loses interest in him and goes in search of other, somewhat more symbolic (though murkily so) characters to focus on. Like the head clown's battered wife who becomes an icon of purity when she enters the tigers' cage and charms them with her singing. Or the mysterious millionaire who keeps trying to buy the diva's wings. Or the diva herself who, Little Mermaid-like, is tempted to undergo the torture that will make her ordinary. Or her adoptive mother, who emerges as a proto-feminist-anarchist-terrorist.

Meanwhile, the tone constantly shifts, from serious to comic to absurd to maudlin and back again, leaving the audience unsure from minute to minute how to respond.

As I said, bits of it work brilliantly, particularly the delightfully absurd touches, and they make you want to like this show. That adoptive mother is, for no special reason, played by a man as a panto dame, while the New York Times reporter has an Icelandic accent (He's actually played by an Icelander, so I don't know if that's in the novel or just a creative exploitation of the coincidence). The diva is no angel, but a wisecracking Cockney who was brought up in a marxist-feminist brothel, and there's a very funny circus strongman wandering around the fringes of the plot.

On the other hand, it is never clear what we are meant to think or feel about the diva or her lover, a scene and song trying to establish clowns as Christ figures dies, and a couple of romantic scenes are just bathetically badly written. And far too much of the show just lies there, not even taking flight in the company's signature aerial ballet sequences.

Natalia Tena gives the winged lady a nice hard comic edge, though the characterisation seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the show. Gisli Orn Gardarsson doesn't give the reporter much personality at all. The rest of the cast are serviceable but no more than that.

Remember the name of Kneehigh Theatre. Their next show may be wonderful. This one isn't.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Nights at the Circus - Lyric Hammersmith 2006