This response was produced as part of the #CircusVoices scheme for developing critical languages around circus arts.
Lafayette, Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 8th August 2016
The Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows in Edinburgh’s Fringe seems to be the perfect venue for a children’s show. Bright colours surround the two venues (one big top, one spiegeltent this year), large colourful shapes like giant Lego blocks fill the pasture area, and multi-coloured palettes make up the bar furniture. The whole place feels like a giant kid’s playground.
Entering the wooden Lafayette feels like stepping into an enchanting real-life representation of a child’s imagination. Gone is the traditional set up of a theatre performance. Instead we walk into a world of fairy lights, bunting, cushions and blankets where children can snuggle up and share some excited whispers before the show begins.
On the surface, Bedtime Stories by Upswing can be seen as a fun, interactive children’s circus show. However, Upswing’s first venture into children’s circus is also a wonderful example of how circus can be combined with technology in order to heighten our experience of performance. Some of the most ground-breaking circus and theatrical works of today are being developed from experimentation and research with digital technologies. The production company Adrien M & Claire B created a piece of work which places performers in a cube of transparent screens onto which graphic imagery is projected, which then dances around the performers and appears to react to their movements. While the technology used in Bedtime Stories is not as highly developed, projected imagery nonetheless plays a crucial role and provides a canvas for our imagination.
The projections are the means of transport which allow us to step into the daydreams of children and to adventure with them through forests, oceans and even into space. The imagery combines delicate illustration imbued with a child-like innocence, and charming animations that take inspiration from shadow puppetry techniques. They come together over our heads on screens that form a giant floating lampshade to create a playful and colourful backdrop to the real-life action, providing a set which is pleasing to look at as well as an effective narrative tool. James Atherton’s lively soundtrack provides the perfect background to the imaginary adventures shared by the audience and characters on stage.
Presenting shows in the round is a long-standing tradition in circus and is used to great effect in Bedtime Stories. The energy and focus of the audience is honed into a central point. It feels like we are all crowded around a campfire waiting to hear the next part of the story unfolding before us. Being in the round allows the animations to leap from one projection screen to another giving us the impression that the images and characters we see there could come alive and walk out among us.
While the Lafayette spiegeltent provides a magical setting, sometimes the performers are difficult to understand due to the background noises and the fact that performing in the round means that the artists are forced to have their back to certain parts of the audience at all times. The songs are also lost a bit within the large space. While the cast are talented physical performers, they are not capable enough singers to fill the room, meaning the songs feel like the weak link in an otherwise powerful performance.
The cast of Nathan Johnston, Hazel Lam and Hannah O’Leary do, however, create believable characters and realistic relationships on stage. One triumph of the show is that the non-verbal communication is just as important as the spoken passages in sharing the touching commentary on family relationships that is the central theme of Bedtime Stories. Lam perfectly captures the restless energy of childhood in her movements and O’Leary successfully mirrors these playful gestures in her performance, adapting them to portray a series of adult reflexes and behaviours. The result is a touching reflection on the joys of childhood and the frustrations and stresses of being a parent. Bedtime Stories looks at the challenges of a mother/daughter relationship from the point of view of both parent and child, and it aims to explain both sides of the story in a way that children and parents alike can appreciate. This idea is perfectly demonstrated in the sequence where piles of bills are thrown into the air by the mother (O’Leary) and the children of the audience immediately jump up to grab the confetti falling from the sky; adult problems are transformed into childhood games.
By the end of the show, both adults and children are taking the leap of imagination to set off on a pirate adventure, creep through a scary forest and tiptoe around a snowy wonderland. Bedtime Stories successfully combines elements of spoken word, animation, acrobatics and aerial circus work within a cosy yet magical setting. The result is a show which enchants children and gives parents an opportunity to reflect on their familial relationships or embrace the leap back into their childhood imagination. It is a fine example of how multi-disciplinary theatre can take inspiration from many different sources and combine them as a means of communicating a single narrative to an audience of any age.
Bedtime Stories is running at Underbelly’s Circus Hub at the Edinburgh Fringe until the 22nd of August. Little ones and big kids are sure to enjoy it.