Monday, June 11, 2012

'Tumble Circus' at London Wonderground, 10th June 2012

There is a strange casual sadism in watching an acrobatics show.  One one hand you're impressed by feats of strength and agility, and on the other you're ghoulishly wondering if they're going to screw up and seriously injure themselves.  Watching people hurt themselves  in various ways is undoubtedly quite popular nowadays (and probably has been since the dawn of time).  I'd imagine that any audience watching people performing dangerous feats is half wondering what would happen if they were to slip off a rope or crash into the audience.  I suppose it is to 'Tumble Circus' credit that most of the enjoyment and suspense came from deeply hoping these nice people would survive their act with a full collection of teeth and no broken bones.

'Tumble Circus' is made up of two performers: Tina Machina, and Kenneth Fall.  They're a modern, no frills kind of act: very stripped down and self-aware with a nice line in self-deprecating humour.  This performance tells the story of the ups and downs in the 17 year relationship of the performers, as they fall in and out love and argue amongst each other.    I don't know how much of it is true or not, the line between reality and fiction seems somewhat blurred.  There are short spoken word sections which punctuate the various circus acts involving clubs, rope climbing, a trapeze, hula-hoops and an impressive range of acrobatics.

The stripped down and personal nature of the performance gives them a bit of a license to make mistakes and get away with it.  There were quite a few screwups near the beginning of the performance involving dropped clubs and hula-hoops that Tina Machina couldn't quite flip off the floor.  Perhaps this was intentional in order to build a genuine sense of danger for the acrobatics to come?  Whether these were intentional mistakes or not, it certainly adds a bit of an uncomfortable air to proceedings.  After all, if they keep dropping these clubs on the floor, how can we be sure that they are going to be able to catch each other when they're swinging high above the audience? I did enjoy the narrative of the performance, which grounded the personalities of the performers very effectively. Maybe the timing and pace could be a little faster, but I half suspect these moments of down time are to give the performers a chance to have a breather.  

The common image of an acrobat troupe is sequined leotards, constant grins and a near total air of consummate professionalism.  When watching a performance like that, you get a vicarious sense of danger, but with the understanding that it's not very likely to go wrong.  The movements are practised and machinelike, with no room for error.  In 'Tumble Circus' there is (at least the illusion) that things are somewhat looser and have more room for interpretation.  The two performers, even as they place complete trust in each other act out little bickering sequences, hitting each other in the head with their shoes and refusing to extend a hand to pull the other up.

The fact that the glamour has almost entirely been stripped from the act makes the performers much easier for the audience to identify with.  You start to think, 'if 'normal' people like this can pull off acrobatics feats, then maybe I could too'.  It's a pretty nice message to give to an audience, and even though the illusion breaks very quickly once you start to consider the massive effort needed to train yourself to this level, it's fun to entertain the idea.

As the narrative proceeds, and the couple make up and break up, parts of the audience are sucked into the narrative.  I had been assured there was no audience participation in the performance, but two members of the audience were picked on quite mercilessly.  One woman was singled out for receiving a series of roses taken from the top of a rope.  Receiving roses plucked from an acrobat's teeth seems like a quite flattering and nice experience.  On the flip side, a man in the audience was quite meanly attacked for being 'old', 'grey' and 'over-the-hill'.  This was the only sour note in the performance for me.  It is a little jarring to hear these pleasant people repeatedly bully someone based on his appearance.  They could have gotten away with maybe one jibe and kept me on side, but throughout the latter half of the show they kept picking on this one guy, who as far I could tell had done nothing to warrant being singled out.  It's not like someone sitting in the audience has much of a chance to respond, and after all he has paid to get in, so I felt a bit sorry for him, whoever he was.

Apart from this slight hiccup though, the audience seemed to be having a great time, applauding at the right moments, and even engaging in an impromptu pillow fight when one was tossed into the audience.  

The music used during the show also hit a sweet spot for me.  Covers of what sounded like 'Today' by the Smashing Pumpkins and 'No Surprises' by Radiohead were played repeatedly as an instrumental soundtrack to proceedings, and to close the act, 'Cannonball' by the Breeders was played.  They're good choices, and contemporary indie songs goes a little way to adding some kind of authenticity and emotional honesty to the act.

I think 'Tumble Circus' achieved what they set out to do, and at no point during the show was I bored.  There is a slightly scrappy nature to the show, and a few more mistakes than you'd expect to see in an act like this, but then it's entirely possible they put those in to increase suspense. It's not exactly a world-shaking show, but it slotted very neatly into the kind of semi-subversive cabaret world that they're trying to establish in the Spiegeltent down at the Udderbelly.  

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