‘The Penguin & I’, by Living Room Circus

Review from: The Loco Klub, Bristol; 11th April 2019

‘The Penguin and I’, by Living Room Circus

Under the railway arches of Bristol Temple Meads station, the underground art venue of the Loco Klub is a vibrant netherworld of kitsch installation pieces and speakeasy vibes. A throne made of mermaid-bright coral presides over a village of dolls houses of the dead. Against the brick tunnel walls, hand-painted circus signage in vintage fonts rest alongside neon lights. This setting, run by The Invisible Circus and Artspace Lifespace, is a suitable herald to the evening’s surreal performance from Living Room Circus, whose dreamlike sequences move away from the psychedelic into more psychological depths. It’s really easy to go wrong with surrealism, but Jason Dupree’s direction of The Penguin & I perfectly captures the humour and uncanny of the subconscious, the ever-shifting balancing act between identity and madness, and an underlying preoccupation with death and jouissance. It’s weird, it’s fun, it’s moving, and it sports some excellent acrobatic talent.

As we wait in the bar area, the characters come out and mingle. Only one of the cast speaks to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it. They’re clearly in character, and I’m clearly not. Once we start moving through the rooms of the performance, however, these distinctions start to blur. There’s impromptu singing and childish games between the watched set pieces of performance, and I’m struck with how easy and natural these feel. This is no forced ‘audience participation’, but rather a communal experience that I’ve only ever encountered once before in circus work, in Circumference’s Shelter Me. There are no binaries, no black and whites, in The Penguin & I; it makes sense that barriers of traditional audience roles are dissolved too.

Josh Frazer in ‘The Penguin and I’

We begin in a living room, with sofa and standard lamps, as a man begins an evening routine of reading and relaxing. Objects come to life and the sofa disgorges a host of quirky personalities that gradually take over for the next hour and a half (including interval). Choreographed movement is slick and precisely timed – music video meets new magic – and draws on the handbalance and acro prowess of the cast members throughout.

At first, we’re not asked to do a lot. To turn and face a stage at the opposite end of the tunnel, where Josh Frazer combines his beautiful grace and grotesque characterisation with a Cyr wheel solo on a tiny stage (the expansive movements constrained by close walls and ceilings give a deliciously dangerous feel). We pass through another curtained brick arch where a penguin plays piano and we’re sold paper hats from a wooden wagon. We split in two and glimpse our counterparts through gauzy curtains, a mirror where two images tied together by rope fight for supremacy. Mannequin body parts replace fleshy contact, and lead Laura Overton into a wistful duet with a pair of plastic hands.

Laura Overton in ‘The Penguin and I’

The Penguin & I seems to have gone under the radar a bit in the UK circus scene, but this is not for lack of quality, and I hope it gets picked up for longer runs with more prominent venue partners. Their longest stint to date has been on a farm in Sussex, and the immersive nature of the production means a single proscenium arch theatre space just won’t do. Over Christmas, the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth accommodated the surreal show and its guests in a guided adventure through the venue’s bar, main space, and studio. Here in the Loco Klub, the catacomb-like tunnels provide a more macabre atmosphere, which adds an extra frisson to the inherent oddity of the production.

Striking new British circus companies have been few and far between over recent years, so it’s a relief to be able to add a new group to my must-watch list. The Penguin & I is one of those rare shows that I’d be happy to see again, and I look forward to seeing what else Living Room Circus offer.

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