Thursday, March 02, 2006

Smoke and Mirrors: Nights at the Circus

Smoke and Mirrors: Nights at the Circus

Last Friday I went to see a show as an almost proper audience member at the WYP for the first time since I started working there. And it seems right to mark this with a proper review. Normal idiosyncratic rules apply.

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The mere mention of Knee High Theatre brings with it certain connotations. Onstage anarchy. Offstage anarchy. Audience participation. And grubby white y-fronts. It is undeniable that Knee High's production of Nights at the Circus brings with it all of these, throwing in - as the show warning posters proudly declare - the usual romp of nudity, violence, bad language and - erm - socks for good measure.

Nights at the Circus is an adaptation of Angela Carter's novel telling the story of Fevvers (Natalia Tena), a women with - as her name suggests - wings. Jack Walser (Gisli Orn Gardarsson), a journalist with the New York Times, comes to interview her after a performance in a London music hall - intending to expose her as a fake - before being forced to question whether Fevvers might actually be for real. It is through Jack's eyes that the tale unfolds as the audience stand with him, left to deduce whether we are presented with nothing more than "smoke and mirrors".

Certainly Carter's novel seems tailormade for Knee High, what with its emphasis on spectacle and the nature of theatre. And in turn Knee High have made an effective job of the adaptation; condensing, changing and creating a production that is true if not to the actualities of the novel then to its spirit. There is no fourth wall, given the pre-show antics in the theatre bar there is not even a theatre, and the audience are played to, splattered with water and even appear reflected on a gigantic circular mirror which pops up from time to time on the stage. Multiple roles are the norm, the MD gets the biggest laugh of the night and song about a puppet pig gets the biggest cheer. Needless to say the audience of diehard Knee High fans and high school students lap it up with delight.

If Knee High's visual tricks are their dramatic currency then the sheer quality of the actors shouldn't be underestimated. All seven have their stand out moments and Tena exudes exactly the right amount of brash, posturing confidence needed for the role of Fevvers. It is in the subplot however where the gently heart breaking performances occur - Ed Woodall as the almost pyschotic and yet strangely sentimental clown and Amanda Lawrence as his numb, almost speechless, battered wife provide an unexpected - and painful - twist to the merriment of circus tricks and grubby pants.

To not enjoy the techniques and audacity of Knee High is to not enjoy the notion of theatre and everything which it offers. Spectacle and famous Shakespeare quotes alone, however, cannot hold a play together. Knee High's previous production, Tristan and Yseult, suffered in this respect through lack of connection between the revelry on stage and the story that it was supposed to be telling and - at least for the first half an hour - Nights at the Circus suffers in a similar manner. When action is established in St Petersburg and the question comes down to what is at stake for Fevvers and Walser rather than what tricks are going to be thrown up next, the production finds itself on much safer ground. As obvious as it may seem, when the play starts asking questions about love and freedom in a concrete way it becomes infinitely more satisfying.

Are Knee High too clever for their own good? Possibly in places, yes. But if you can see one of their shows and not experience a rush of excitement or find yourself rolling around your seat with laughter at least once then there really is no hope for you and you should give up going to the theatre and take up golf instead. By no means perfect Nights at the Circus is still an exciting, enjoyable and - ultimately - moving production. And if Knee High doesn't get people into the theatre then nothing will.

Nights at the Circus, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 24/02/06

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Whilst I don't worship at the alter of Knee High one thing remains - these guys are good. And getting free ice cream is even better.

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