Friday, January 25, 2019

Review: 'No Show' at the Soho Theatre, 24th January 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Life as a professional circus performer doesn't sound much fun. 

Learning the skills is intense, painful and (I'm guessing) expensive. Relying on your body for your livelihood means that you must constantly train and watch your diet. An injury can permanently scupper your career. The pay is variable and generally not great. Then there's the simple fact that the nature of what you're doing comes with a baked in age limit - and there are always younger, fitter, bendier, injury-free people entering the industry. On top of that, as we learn with No Show, the circus industry treats women really shittily.

So why do people do it? Is that gasp you get from an audience as you spiral gracefully through the air worth all the misery? Creator/director Ellie Dubois and performers Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Camille Toyer and Alice Gilmartin set out to deconstruct the traditional circus show, showing us the psychological and physical pressures behind the sequins and vaseline smiles.

In a way, the audience gets to have their cake and eat it. Not only do we get to see physical feats of strength, balance, flexibility and endurance, but we also learn about what's going on in the performer's mind as they do so.

Early on we get a statement of intent from the show in the form of a Cyr wheel routine from Camille Toyer. I've seen a bunch of these over the years and familiarity with this act has made me a little blase. Much of that was swept away here, as Kate McWilliam gives a running commentary on the potential injuries that can be caused: with the performer risking crushed fingers and toes, broken bones or a fractured skull. Explicitly outlining the physical dangers is a blunt way of cranking up the tension - but it works.

No Show really hits its stride when it gets into the way women are treated within the industry. McWilliam delivers a short speech outlining her career, explaining that while she prefers to do tumbling and gymnastics there is a constant pressure for women to do 'dainty and feminine' routines that emphasise their fragility.

Then you have Alice Gilmartin's repeated efforts to introduce herself to the audience - she generally only gets a few words in before the microphone is snatched from her hands and she's forced into a handstand on the canes. The other women provide a running commentary as she does so: criticising her poise, lack of engagement with the audience, make comments like "she's got her legs open as usual" and generally demean her. You realise that while it's all rictus grins on stage, there's an awful lot of misery going on in rehearsals.

As a show conceived and performed by women, No Show is something of an anomaly in the circus world. Generally, acrobatics and circus shows are mixed sex affairs, with beefy men launching skinny women high into the air. I'd unthinkingly accepted this as just the way things were, but Dubois and the performers gave me a lot to think about. 

It strikes me that (in much the same way as other corners of the entertainment industry) your professional career is at the mercy of powerful men with carte blanche to decide the nature of your routine. If that means you're being sent out in a skimpy Barbie-doll costume to grin and twirl before a leering audience, then that's the nature of the game honey, and you'd best get used to it if you know what's good for you.

Learning all this makes the most satisfying moment of the performance one of the most low key: the performers sit on the ground next to one another and silently eat a jam doughnut. It's a funny, dignified and weirdly moving protest, grabbing back a smidge of autonomy in an industry designed to stamp that out. 

No Show doesn't provide jaw-dropping stunts you can't see anywhere else, but it has a political dimension that no other circus show even attempts to provide. Check it out.

No Show is at the Soho Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

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