The Albany, London, CircusFest; 6th April 2016
The Insect Circus is a delightful wonderland of incredible mini-beasts, grown to human proportions and trained for our viewing pleasure by a multi-talented troupe of performers, headed up by BAFTA winning Creative Director Mark Copeland and his partner Sarah Munro. Like any variety show, the line-up regularly changes, and today the show is brought to us by a company of 14, including the little girls who look after the flies. You heard right.
For adults the show is a humourous pastiche, and a witty homage to circus heritage. For kids, it’s a splendidly coloured spectacle of awe and awws, which sparks the imagination and provides fuel for inquisitive minds. The physical tricks are presented strongly and, while not virtuosic in a global context, are certainly well above playground fare and will inspire circus newcomers of any age. The show is also a relaxed and non-threatening introduction to the conventions of live performance that’s likely to encourage youngsters back again.
Ringmaster Ronald McPeak (Copeland) is a benign Willy Wonka of the insect world. His bow-tie is a glittering butterfly, in just one example of the exceptional attention to detail that has been paid to this production. The show began as a series of paintings, then evolved into a travelling museum, and the live show seen today. Copeland and Munro still design and make all the costumes and props, which give the impression an exotic picture book has sprung to life before us.
Acts are introduced from all corners of the globe, giving a sense of geographical and historical adventure. The vibrant language of circus rhetoric creates drama and intrigue for the primary school aged audience, although the delivery is almost offhand. Some of the more worldly puns and wordplay nearly pass over even my head although, when I catch them like Easter Eggs, I’m prompted to bursts of laughter time and time again. (Nothing is in any way blue, but general knowledge references pepper the script).
The acts are based upon traditional circus fare but, where we might have once seen an elephant or a bear or a sealion, their roles are now taken by giant snails, dancing moths, or lovable dung-beetles. Beast Tamer Pemma Ricardo presents a ‘happy families’ act that includes two ants, a bumble bee, and two tiger-like wasps; Mr Maroc (Marcos Rivas Farpon) offers a dramatic beetle-fight styled after the tradition of Spanish bullfighting but without the bloodshed; Charmaine Mow (Munro) leads a troupe of ants that, depending on your perspective, either references the seamless teamwork of acrobats that emerge from communist China (yes, say her name out loud), or just provides an amusing yet surprising spectacle of a trick cycling routine.
The all-human act of Baron and Baroness Flutterby on the doubles trapeze shows Lyndall Merry and Freya Watson have character acting talent as well as a solid routine of well executed tricks. Other numbers may be less technically impressive, but are equally as entertaining.
Each breed of insect has a distinct movement pattern that differentiates the species as much as their bold costumes. Winningly, they all behave exactly as one would expect trained creatures to, going off-piste in the myriad of little ways that gave rise to the adage ‘never work with children or animals’. The house flies are particularly recognisable and, larger than life on this stage, these most unloved of pests transform into almost puppy-dog cute.
The architecture of The Albany’s theatre echoes a big top perfectly, and the setting makes me wish for the fading days of resident circuses – I would make a point of finding myself here on a regular basis to see what the Insect Circus troupe could offer next.