Of the many musicals with circus settings, from Barnum to Carnival, from Stop the World (I want to Get Off) to Carousel, until now Sideshow was probably one of the darkest. But Twyla Tharp’s new show set to Bob Dylan’s songs is not only a Hallowe’en-ish look at the grotesqueries of circus life, it’s also downright nasty in its unexplained violence. It’s busier, more intricate and cohesive-looking than her earlier Movin’ Out, based on Billy Joel songs, and there’s just as much action but, unfortunately, a negligible plot.

From the moment the clowns, all superb dancer/acrobats, burst on to the stage, bounding in to Santo Loquasto’s skewed vision of a ramshackle circus, artily lit by Donald Holder, we are watching, according to a programme note, “a fable that exists in a dreamscape populated by members of a struggling circus”. Struggle they do in every way to defend themselves against a tyrannical boss, villainous Captain Ahrab (well played and sung by Thom Sesma) who has not only a crippled leg but also a nasty chip on his shoulder. Why Ahrab’s so mean is not made clear. His son Coyote (Michael Arden), who despises and fears him, falls for the waif-like Cleo (Lisa Brescia) who has tagged on to the circus and is under Ahrab’s thumb – and not only his thumb.

Without dialogue everything is expressed in Dylan’s sometimes wandering songs, usually accompanied by a choreographic extravaganza including all the elements of circus performing, including tightrope- walking, tumbling and stylised rough-ups with a touch of ballet here and there, the dancers’ already fine ballon being augmented by an embedded trampoline strip that sends them bouncing uncannily high.

Tharp weaves in other elements of circus performance including animals, but even here she can’t resist ratcheting up Ahrab’s wrath, having him whip Cleo’s dog (portrayed by a dancer) almost to death. Arden diligently delivers the plaintive, brooding songs, such as “Mr Tabourine Man”, and Brescia enchants with “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”. But it’s the ensemble with the ex-ballet dancer John Selya and other Tharp regulars that gives this show its dynamism. It could be that they’re being goaded on by Tharp herself standing darkly nearby, cracking the whip.

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