Brent Cross, London; 3rd August 2014
Chaplin’s Circus are new on the tenting scene this year, with a concept that sets a show about a circus in a circus big top, with circus and street artists acting both as performers and as backstage crew – whilst filling the ring-hand roles in real life too.
We are set back to the year 1924, where the fictional Chaplin’s Circus is on the verge of bankruptcy, and ringmaster Mark Mergana (Mark Foot) has a final last ditch plan to save his business, using the inventions of Mr Orville Wright (he of the flying machine fame, played by Craig Anderson).
A series of near-disasters, mostly precipitated by dastardly rival proprietor Barrington Brie (Gary Stocker), sees the determined troupe pulling through together at the 11th hour, in a do-or-die spirit of invention and camaraderie. Which also reflects the spirit of this brave new company, who have launched their ‘new concept’, with passion and determination, evolving it whilst on the road.
The company was founded by Foot and Stocker, in a partnership that mimics many of the great entrepreneurial teams from circus history, with their respective entertainment and business backgrounds. The script works well structurally, but is currently very wordy and expositional, let down at times by the delivery, at others hampering the actors with a clunky verbosity. Some of the jokes seem shoehorned in to demonstrate writerly cleverness. To their credit, however, the team are aware of these issues, working now with a director to develop a reduced text version of the show, which will work both at home and in Europe, where interest has already been expressed.
Chaplin’s Circus may have one of the largest tents on tour at the moment, but it’s not used to it’s full potential during the show, with half given over to the backstage area (or fictional front-of-house, which we glimpse occasionally through the ring doors). The action takes place on – and above – a raised stage set between the two king poles, dressed in a nostalgic hessian and red satin aesthetic.
When I first contacted the company in May this year, I discovered they had already been adapting their publicity material based on public responses from the earliest days, and the version I see today declares itself a mix of ‘Pantomime, the West End, and all your favourite Circus Acts’.
The mixture isn’t cooked yet though, and the ingredients of naturalism, melodramatic characterisation, pantomime call and response, and circus pragmatism need clarity amongst the ensemble. The show is chock-full of good ideas, but they often overwhelm each other, leaving me unsure as to the logic of their universe.
There are some excellent performances, most notably Anderson as the effervescent gentleman inventor Orville Wright. He has great energy, and hits an apparently effortless balance between heightened characterisation and genuine engagement – with both the fictional world and his audience.
The eponymous Charlie Chaplin doesn’t appear in today’s show, and the role – played originally by Charlie Pakdel – may have been replaced by the clowning routines of The Konyots, with David Konyot playing the part of a nameless Stagehand (come to think about it, the running gag that the Ringmaster could never remember his name makes more sense if it was originally delivered to a Chaplin lookalike… But I digress)
David Konyot is a warm and funny clown, at his best when playfully teasing his wife and partner Ancsa, who plays new arrival Maria Rasputin. As a trio with daughter Lili, their musical clown acts are neat, funny and surprising, with great contrast between the three in their classic clown roles.
I also enjoy the performance of tricker Jake Parsons, who plays acrobat George. He is genuine and watchable on stage, although this style doesn’t always fit with those around him.
Sarah-Jane Lavelle demonstrates the most skilled routines and, though we don’t see many complicated moves, she has a grace and poise to her aerial hoop and trapeze that are evocative of 1920s starlets, and the shift in dynamic as she starts to swing is strong. Her ‘Wind-Up Wendy’ routine transforms her from a circus automaton into a real lithe girl, who walks the slack-line as if it were a tight-wire with superb control over the rope, adding some pretty spins around the line, and a walking wheel.
The show teeters amid the tricky issues of playing ‘amateur’ without seeming inept, and playing ‘private rehearsal’ as public performance. Amongst the circus acts, many are introduced through the notion of ring hands practising backstage, or of new inventions from Mr Wright for the circus to try, giving us snippets of rola bola, ‘monocycle’ and trampoline. My main impression of the show is that it’s not quite sure what it is yet, flitting between one style and another with no solid ground to settle on. Design, tent and backlot are all smart and well styled; next the material must follow.