Saturday, August 18, 2012

'The Royal Family of Strange People' at the London Wonderground, 18th August 2012

Walking into an auditorium and finding a pair of protective goggles waiting on your seat seems pretty ominous.  So, there's going to be something on this stage that requires protective gear?  Cool.

'The Royal Family of Strange People' originates in Coney Island, New York - but they fit right into the Weimer republic like circus aesthetic of the Wonderground.  The previous shows I've seen here have been along similar lines - a mixture of sex, danger, horror and kink.  I've never been to a self described freak show before, but the image of them has been rehabilitated from 'gawp at people with deformities' into something approaching a circus; a series of expertly skilled performances requiring intense practice and concentration.

The performers tonight were The Lizard Man, Gary Stretch, Zoe L'Amore, The Baron, Missy Macabre and Hannibal.  Swords were swallowed, limbs were teased with flames, corkscrews were wound through faces, skin was stretched, nipple piercings were pushed to within an inch of their lives - it's a very full on show.

The Lizard Man
The Lizard Man acted as the compere for the evening.  He's described as the most modified man in the world - and more than lives up to this billing.  He's covered from head to toe in green, scaled tattoos, has a bifurcated tongue, teflon implants grafted to his skull to give him eye ridges and teeth sharpened down to filed points.  His performance could essentially function as him just standing there, he is a fantastically interesting person to look at - someone who has used their body as a canvas to the fullest extent.  His act consists of showing off what he can do with this split tongue, and a later comedy human blockhead routine where he jams a fork into his nose.  For such a strange looking guy, he comes across as remarkably personable and normal on stage, once the initial shock of his performance has worn off you very quickly warm to him, and he serves as an introduction to the type of performance we're going to see tonight.  

All of the performers here are obviously utterly committed to their art.  This isn't something that they are dabbling in on the side while going off to work in a bank on weekdays - performing like this is something approaching a lifestyle choice rather than a job.  It's inspiring to see this level of commitment in performers, and it gives what they do a sincerity - they are proud of the skills they've mastered - this enthusiasm easily rubs off on the audience.

Missy Macabre
The second performer is Missy Macabre.  Dressed in a sort of flapper style art nouveau outfit she poses with running flaming torches over her body, or gripping the flaming end in her teeth.  It's mesmerisingly Lynchian, especially with the faintly tripped out and hypnotic music playing over the top.  She is a fantastic performer, frequently making eye-contact with members of the audience, creating a personal connection and drawing us into the world of her performance.  It's also one of the performances where I have genuinely no idea how it is done without suffering burns and intense pain. There must be a trick to it, but I'm damned if I can work it out.  You can see her teeth touching the fire!  Her sinuously erotic and highly controlled movements and poses stand in sharp contrast to the flames licking wildly around her. 

Hannibal comes on stage next, a far more manic performer.  He's a sword swallower, and is at pains (probably literally) to show us that this is no illusion or trick.  He begins by swallowing a sword without on a chain, to prove that the blade isn't retracting into the handle.  Next he demonstrates his 'floating ribs'.  He tells us that he's had his top two ribs permanently broken, so they 'float' within his body.  To prove this he walks among the crowd and allows us to feel them poking out under his skin.  This is, to say the least, mildly disconcerting.  I found myself hoping that this was just a nice bit of stagecraft, but on the other hand I can't see much of a reason for him to lie about it.  As the act goes on the swords get longer and longer.  You begin to wander just where these swords are ending up in his anatomy.  He holds an especially long sword in front of his body which would terminate somewhere just above his groin.  I'd love to see an X-Ray of what this looks like when it's in him.  When it is all inside him, he bends at the waist and takes a bow to the audience.  When he says to the crowd "I'm such a fucking idiot", we are inclined to take this admission more than a little seriously.

After this we get another short performance from the Lizard Man, who twists a corkscrew through his nose, out of his mouth and through his ear - before a short comedy routine on how to avoid getting a ticket for speeding.  I guess it's understandable that if you've got a fork sticking alarmingly out of your head, a policeman is more than likely going to be too freaked out to write you up.  Although now that I think about it, the fact that they've just pulled over a guy that looks like nothing more than a giant humanoid lizard might give them pause for thought anyway.

Zoe L'Amore
Next up is Zoe L'Amore's pain routine.  She comes on stage licking a standing fan.  I don't doubt that she's doing this for real, but from the audience's perspective it's a little hard to actually see what she's doing, and the initial reaction is a bit muted.  Of all the performers on stage last night, she seemed like the only one who had just a touch of not really wanting to be there about her.  If your job consists of walking up staircases made of swords then I suppose a bad day at work is a really bad day.  As a result, even though it is obviously impressive to see something supporting their entire weight on the blade of a sword it's hard to enjoy because throughout she looks slightly pissed off.  If the performer isn't having a good time inflicting pain upon themselves then it becomes somewhat less enjoyable for the audience.  But, no matter what it's hard not to be impressed at the sight of someone being raised up to the top of the tent resting on two sharp sword blades.

The Baron
The Baron comes on stage next - he's a fantastic and slightly sinister strongman in the classical Victorian style.  I very much enjoyed the fact that he actually had leopard print trunks on!  From Charles Atlas through to Flex Mentallo, this look radiates a slightly faded aura of strength and commitment.   All of the performers at this event were tattooed to some degree, but I think I preferred his the most.  He's covered in a series of hexagons, and what look like diagrams of chemical compounds - it looks great, and is a nice contrast to the other more conventionally designed tattoos on the other performers (not that they don't look great in their own right). 

In action.
The way he moves around the stage confidently is a great demonstration of his charisma - he seems like he belongs in front of an audience.  His strongman act here consists of attaching weights to his various piercings and lifting them into the air.  The weights are brought onto stage by Missy Macabre, and satisfyingly 'clonked' down onto the ground so we get a tangible sense of their mass.  As he attaches himself to them, and slowly stands his body begins to stretch out, and he grimaces in pain.  Either he's a fantastic actor, or he genuinely is in pain, either way, the audience winces as one as he lifts increasingly heavier weights.

Gary Stretch
The only performer who was born with the condition that lets him perform is Gary Stretch, who suffers from an extremely rare variety of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  The collagen in his skin is misshapen, meaning that his skin, while being thinner and more fragile, can also stretch out alarmingly from his body.  Even aside from this, Gary Stretch looks fascinatingly weird.  He reminds me of a zombified Will Self, and while he doesn't talk much during his act, he has one of the most expressive faces I've seen on a person.  Watching him stretch his skin away from his body makes the audience slightly queasy, and alone among all the other performances it's the only one where we can't imagine how it feels.  Everyone knows what it's like to be, say, burned, or to cut oneself on a blade, but his stretchy skin looks completely alien to us.  The highlight of his act is when he stretches the skin up from his neck right over his mouth, making what is already a strange looking person look even odder.

More fire-eating
After this all the performers come back on stage and do another quick routine.  The two that stood out here were The Baron and Missy Macabre's watermelon routine.  Missy lay on the floor in  seductive poses, and placed a watermelon on her body, then the Baron pulled out a sword and with one swipe neatly bisected it, leaving Missy unharmed.  It's a nice demonstration of both the skill of these performers and the trust that they have in each other's abilities.  But my favourite part of the finale was Zoe L'Amore's angle grinder routine.  She puts on a harness with a metal plate over her crotch, and then angle grinds away - sparks flying everywhere!  I guess this is why we were given goggles.  A woman lying on stage with a shower of fire emanating from between her legs is very powerful imagery - the masculinity of the power tool being neatly subverted into something feminine.

This is awesome.
As they all lined up and took their bows at the end I could see why they call themselves a family.  They all look like they belong together in some weird way.  In their excellent outfits,with their individual motifs they looked like nothing more than a team of superheroes.  I had a wonderful time at this show.  It's impossible not to get caught up in the infectious atmosphere that runs through the crowd here.  While what's going on on the stage is absolutely gripping, it's worth glancing to the side and looking at the reactions from the audience occasionally.  The faces were contorted with a mixture of wonder, and at times laughter and disgust.  When the performers tell us that it's our reactions that get us through the pain it initially sounds a bit cheesy, but by the end I was in no doubt that getting on up stage and watching people react to what you've spent countless hours practising must be an exhilarating drug like few others.

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