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The verb “to study” takes on a different complexion if you are heading for a BA in Circus Arts: it suggests hours devoted to balancing on a tilted chair or plunging repeatedly down a vertical pole until you can stop abruptly with your nose inches from the ground. But what do you do with the skill once you have perfected it?
Success as a circus artist calls for the ability to connect with an audience as well as technique. Today’s circus increasingly demands a degree of acting ability. So the Circus Space, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Cirque Bijou have got together to mount Sequins and Sawdust, which gives students a chance to perform alongside experienced artists.
The result is a vivacious, busy and very likeable show. The skill of the performers is not in question. There are many impressive acts here, including a jiving troupe of acrobats, a rock and roll trapeze act, a delightful, flirtatious hula-hoop ensemble and a Pierrot who sweeps up the spotlight. Indeed it is not the level of performance that hampers the show but the surrounding story, which is too complex for the medium.
The show opens with a man lying face down in the ring, dead. This is an arresting image and one that instantly reminds us that many circus acts dice with danger. But then the man (Richard Headon) steps out of his coffin and takes us back in time, through his life as a ringmaster. The story follows his domestic troubles, creates the atmosphere of life on the road and takes in circus fashions past and present. The narrative can be unclear, however, and there is often too much going on at once.
There are also some inspired scenes in Jon Beedells’ production that make wonderful use of the performers’ skills. The wedding of the ringmaster’s daughter is witty and touching, with a priest who scurries up a pole, cassock billowing. There are lovely details too, such as the drunken ringmaster dancing with a fire extinguisher and one performer falling asleep on an ironing board. The onstage band plays sympathetically throughout, adroitly supporting the changing moods.
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