Gryphon Venues, Edinburgh Fringe Festival; 11th August 2014
The Freedom Family Circus show from the USA is a light cabaret of mediocre juggling acts and nominal clowning, clearly intended for young children who haven’t yet developed an acute critical eye. It starts off with promise, as Shea FreeLove appears in pith helmet and safari outfit, setting out the premise of a big circus, with all the trimmings, who have lost their Big Foot. He gets in some well placed Scottish references, and responds gently and appropriately to the small temperamental toddlers tottering around.
Later on, when Hermey The Clown suggests playing a trick on the ‘mean ole ringmaster’, I’m a bit confused. We hadn’t been given that impression at all.
Hermey is introduced, along with the other performers, Hollie Blower and Miss Cindy Marvell, and then they are off again to allow Hollie (I think that was her name) to claim the stage for her act. Her striped costume is neat, and taps into popular circus clown imagery, with natural blonde pigtails, and a red nose on a string. Her opening kazoo work and set up of black and white juggling balls drags a bit, then her basic tricks and tap-dancing work up to a few seconds of 5-ball toss, in a sweet, kid-oriented act.
At this point I find myself appreciating the most comfortable seats I’ve found so far in the Fringe, in the cute black box venue.
Hermey is the second act, and I enjoy the giant cardboard Big Foot tracks that he painstakingly lays across the stage. His hat manipulation tricks aren’t honed, but neither is the recognition of his failures that would warm us further towards his clown character. He is much better at interacting with the audience, teaching us how to applaud and act like monkeys, then presenting a good, tried-and-tested handkerchief act with the help of one of the audience, giving us some sleight-of-hand silliness.
Hermey has some difficulty getting volunteers from the young crowd, but works very well with a small lad whose mum warns, ‘He doesn’t speak English‘. Hermey responds warmly with ‘Everyone knows the language of showbiz!‘, and it’s true, Luka smiles and seems to enjoy his time on stage as the clown clearly communicates through his physicality and mime. A balloon modelling section is amusing for us, but looks disappointing for the girl who ends up with only half a balloon animal.
The show is populated with fun groany jokes and cheesy puns, which are easy to chuckle at, but sometimes feel rather forced and unloved as they’re recited, particularly during a club passing juggle from Hollie Blower and Cindy Marvell that doesn’t keep me engaged at all.
FreeLove’s boobie-trap building with a group of children is fun, and yields a surprising result, then it’s time for Marvell’s own act, dressed in brightly coloured tie-dye. At times it seems the troupe are trying to evoke a Summer Of Love hippy vibe, with occasional design and music choices, but this concept is not fully carried through.
Using a drum within her ball-juggling, that incorporates toss and bounce moves, Marvell keeps the patterns interesting, and seems happiest when focussed on her props. When she has to face the audience, I get the feeling that she’d rather not be doing this. Throughout the show, juggling sections end when the props hit the deck, rather than with any apparently planned finesse.
As the show winds up, and I begin to worry that we may not get the Big Foot pay-off, he appears in all his fuzzy, eyebrow waggling glory, fun and non-threatening, ready to be petted.
Writing this, I feel like it may be the harshest sounding review I’ve yet given, but the whole point of critique is to allow for distinctions between top and lesser quality acts. I also feel strongly that ‘entertainment for children’ should never mean ‘lesser quality’, as it can be experiences like these that lead people to tarnish all children’s art with the same brush.
I have seen some wonderful family friendly productions at this year’s Fringe alone and, unfortunately, Freedom Family Circus is not one of them. Apparently they bring a different line up each year, so perhaps 2015 will be a better one.