Blackpool Tower Circus, aged five, and I was terrified… the magnificent men and women on the flying trapeze were swooping high over our heads and all I could think was that, without a safety net, they could die in front of us.
There’s always been a mortal fascination with circus performance, not just the risks they take but also the amount of their lives they have to devote to moving their art towards the limits of human possibility. I don’t say that lightly and when Kate McWilliam performs 54 cartwheels inside of a minute, she may be 11 off equalling the world record but it’s humbling all the same; how many hours, weeks, years have gone into that amazing minute?
This is circus but it also comes with a story both real and imagined… like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or Miranda, there’s the artifice of the troop putting on a show but there’s also a deeper narrative, one based on the women’s own career and their treatment.
Kate tells us about her role in a TV show in which she and others trained celebrities to do circus tricks yet, in spite of the fact that she has a degree in the circus arts and is a specialist in some of the most physically challenging of the disciplines, she and other women were often reduced to more decorative displays while the men were allowed to tumble; she takes a glance at the audience and sets of on three perfectly executed tumbles, power and grace combined with acting: these movements carrying disappointment, frustration and an anger that cuts short any frills…
The men would be supportive always telling her she was good but, more often than that, saying that she was good “for a girl”.
|Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross and a flying Francesca Hyde (Photos courtesy of Chris Reynolds)|
Such an idea, in close proximity to these immensely accomplished and brave, women, is risible. Camille Toyer is a master of the cyr wheel a heavy metal ring that is some two metres in diameter. Kate narrates as Camille shows what she can do and whilst there’s a joke about the dangers, as they are both “professionals”, the cyr is heavy and can do a lot of damage. Where Camille to lose concentration and allow the wheel to run over her toes they would all break, at the other end the wheel could knock her out or worse whilst, for more difficult motions, it could finish her career as well as taking out the front row of the Soho Theatre.
Yet Camille is literally breath-taking in the wheel, spinning perfect slow circles and then speeding up as she turns 360 degrees first vertically and then, incredibly, almost horizontally.
There’s a running joke about Alice Gilmartin who keeps on trying to introduce the show in the manner of one of Eric and Ernie’s guests, the other’s gently take the mickey but, of course, she has a supernatural flexibility and strength that eventually smacks our gobs.
Her chief tormentors are occasional accordion player, Francesca Hyde and Michelle Ross who’s comic timing and impish grin put me in mind of Alan Cummings (a good thing!). The two have an epic stand-off trying to outlast the other one leg on the ground and the other in the air before they tow produce their party tricks, Michelle taking her though her high-wire act and Francesca spinning furiously supported only by her hair from a rope above the stage.
All have different characters and when they sit down in a line and eat their donuts in silence staring out at the audience it’s hard not to feel intimidated… there’s few people tougher than a circus artist and what are we looking at anyway… pal!?
|Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Francesca Hyde Camille Toyer and Alice Gilmartin,|
They’re testing us and sustaining a good-natured rapport with the watchers in much the same way as a great stand-up comic – yes, they act but the physical routines are personal statements and they demand our respect. Just as I rooted for those trapeze artists in Blackpool so I felt for the team tonight.
As Ellie Dubois who devised the show says, “we made this show before the #MeToo movement, but the world has been slow to catch up and it feels even more important and relevant than ever.” The moment of pure show-girls has passed and you can’t not look to your own attitudes in watching this “no show”. Whatever the politics, what emerges is a portrait of five hard working and consummately professional women.
No Show runs, jumps, spins and tumbles until Saturday 9th February 2019, there’s nothing like it in
London right now and I urge you to spin your way as fast as you can to buy a ticket.
Ithankyou Theatre rating: **** A perfectly-poignant mix of performance art: philosophical circus that lifts you up and makes you think as you marvel at the potential of applied human dedication. Also, very, very funny too!