I am performing a kind of circus trick of my own, writing this review: typing these words while simultaneously hiding behind a chair. I’m sure that there will be many from the audience at this performance who will recoil in horror at the two-star mark. Yes, these are incredibly talented artists, doing exceptional things, but their circus skills were presented within an envelope that needed a lot more theatrical clarity. It was like having exquisite gems in an unbecoming setting. The list of creative contributors and technical experts underpinning the show is extensive, but it notably excludes a dramaturg and I feel this to be the nub of the problem.
It started well with a door into the lobby of a hotel; a long counter as a Reception or bar (or both) and a performer dressed as a vintage bellhop complete with an old-fashioned luggage trolley. People get popping up from behind the counter, but over the course of 85 minutes these allusions to the Hotel drifted away and, by the end, we could have been anywhere.
The individual skills of the various performers were – as one would expect – considerable. An outstanding juggler (Philippe Dupuis) performed innovative routines outside the box, which, ironically, included juggling inside a box – or, at least a square – using the walls as part of his act. The hand to hand acrobatics were solid and strong, initially through the all-male duo of Julius Bitterling and César Mispelon – beginning with an interesting session of gate-folding their bodies, wrapped around each other – and later by Andrei Anissimov (who also gave a comedic impression of a dog) with the multi-tasking Emma Rogers. There was a fascinating act by a tall and beautiful acrobat, Tuedon Ariri, combining contortionism with the aerial straps, in an exposition of incredible core strength and balance.
The pacy, raucous finale had just about every performer leaping consecutively up and across Chinese poles but other circus aspects were disappointing (with reference to similar shows that come around regularly – and often to this venue). Circus-based theatre is big business now – this is the third such show I have reviewed in the opening weeks of 2019 – and such competition requires pushing the boundaries in innovation and excellence and not padded with more of the same.
I’m sorry to say that the music didn’t work for me either. Clearly, a lot of effort had gone into creating a bespoke album of songs to go with the action and Sabrina Halde was a strong and expressive theatrical presence wandering around with the other performers (and one has to acknowledge that most of the circus artists also played an instrument, even if only the triangle, which is no mean feat). The problem was that her lyrics were mostly indistinct (technical issues?) and at one point she gave up a song with a laugh and picked it up a few bars later. I’m sure that, given more listening time and greater clarity, there is good music in there. It just didn’t work for me, this time around.
There was a strong filmic element to the show, helped by the evocative silent movie image of Antonin Wicky, a man who seems to have been born in the wrong era (he could easily stand alongside Chaplin, Keaton et al as a flustered, hapless clown). But, while he had the right image, the material for him and Jérémy Vitupier (the other clown) was just never funny enough. There was also some odd leit motif about a surprisingly inanimate “furry animal” that I simply never understood. But, then I have always found humour to be the weak link in any Cirque du Soleil show. Perhaps, it’s just me!
Despite excellent set and costume designs (by Francis Farley-Lemieux and Lucien Bernèche, respectively), outstanding circus artists and – probably above all else – remarkable technical coordination of many simultaneous activities, I found the Hotel setting to be contrived and any attempt at knitting the various performers together into an holistic, theatrical experience often to be a mass of confusing, incongruous and clashing activity. Some of the circus was great but all the bits in-between need greater clarity to make those gems really shine.