Beauty, Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 22nd August 2016
Zombies, super-strength and test-tube potions are the order of the day in Elixir, from the Australian team of Head First Acrobats (HFA). Or, more correctly, the order of the night – the programming of this show into a 10pm slot is a great move to attract a new type of audience to the sort of universally entertaining circus-theatre show that (with the removal of a couple of choice expletives) could be equally accessible to a family crowd.
A table is set with a white cloth and neat array of chemistry beakers, filled with pastel liquids of pink, blue and mauve. Suddenly the lights flash red. An outbreak alert warning sounds. A slobbering, lumbering Thomas Gorham appears, determined to eat our brains. Disaster is averted, and the show can begin, the usual pre-theatre announcement incorporated amusingly within the material as we are introduced to Elixir Corporation’s clinical trials.
Now we see Gorham (who founded HFA in 2013 and also directed the show) with Cal Harris and Rowan Thomas, dressed in medical labcoats over jeans the colour of old blood. Their buffoonery includes deliberate play on the mores of sexified circus, with Thomas as the squeaky-voiced foil to the alpha competitiveness of Gorham and Harris. The trio offer traditional circus clowning routines and gags in a thoroughly modern guise, alongside hand-to-hand routines, balance ladder, Washington trapeze, and Cyr wheel.
Receiving instructions from a disembodied voice-over, the men prepare for their role in the human pharma-experiment, taking body measurements and showing off to a recurring track of elevator-style music that could have come straight from The Sims computer game. The effects of the first elixir are tested, leading into a display of strength from Gorham and Harris, synchronised on two pairs of tall hand balance canes. Harris’ nightly steaming as his body heats in the large and, comparatively, chilly venue fits well within their science-meets-fiction world.
Circus performers are regularly referenced as ‘superhuman’ but, in Elixir, HFA move away from the heroic into the darker realms of mythical power – performed with a comic touch throughout. When Thomas is pressured into taking his dose, he combines skilled eccentric dance and performed inebriation in a superb Cyr wheel act; amid the flashing green and pink lights and techno styled Hall of the Mountain King backing, he brilliantly maintains his clown persona, presenting an apparent loss of physical control whilst rolling with his wheel into a near-horizontal coin spin and back out again, or catching one of the others into his whirling ring.
An accidental mix-up with the potions causes a tragic accident for Gorham (resulting in much vocal sobbing and hand-wringing from his fellows). The lip-licking, eye-rolling, breakdance moving zombie is in the building. And, of course, the best way to stop a zombie from eating your brains is to make it think you’re one of them! A wonderful and silly Thriller moment features a group guest appearance from other Circus Hub performers.
The discovery of a cure is a little confused, as is Gorham’s rezombification after the finale teeterboard number, but the pink elixir that causes the lads to strip down to stockings and suspenders is clear. Of course, Thomas didn’t get the dress-code memo…
Elixir is howlingly great fun and no brains will be taxed in the watching of this production. Mind, though, that they don’t get munched instead. Mwah-hah-ha-hah!