Peacock Theatre, London; 5th October 2017
If I were given the job of naming the boisterous, thigh-slapping show I saw this evening from Cirque Éloize, my title would be ‘Dear America’. The Canadian company have harnessed their neighbours’ iconic Wild West aesthetic and ride it hard in a series of dextrous and acrobatic character studies that reveal a love rivalry story featuring feisty females, macho goldminers and quirky cowpokes. Bar room brawls, showdowns and shoot’em’ups are played out with a nudge nudge wink wink of excess that lovingly lampoons Western movie clichés but could also be waggling a finger at a more contemporary culture of gun loving. In fact, the ridiculous side of senseless violence, played out like a cartoon for our entertainment, doesn’t just have resonance for the US.
To me, it seems like this is an important point to be making, and I wish the moral that peeks out at me wasn’t quite so deeply buried beneath the frontier trappings and feel-good tunes. It’s given scant weight, as if accident or afterthought rather than intention. I can’t figure out if Saloon is genuinely meant to be a romanticised pat on the back to an era whose reality was far removed from this cheerful spectacle, or whether the creative team do have a political point to make. It’s a jolly, hearty, entertaining evening, but the idea of an unselfconsciously idealised Old West and its archetypal characters is at best uninspiring, at worst, rather concerning. Fortunately, there are a couple of moments that break this colonial hero myth and add something a bit more human.
One such is a duet on the central chandelier by the acrobatic company’s two women, Justine Méthé Crozat and Shena Tschofen. The pair are characterised in the printed programme as The Ambitious and The Warrior (though in the exterior publicity on the theatre walls they are alternatively termed The Artist and The Kid. The programme version gives more clarity to their characters as seen on stage). The choreography is underwhelming when placed against the other top notch skills we see from the pair – and all the ensemble – elsewhere in the show, but the message that these women are independently minded is welcome, and the glimpse inside Crozat’s motivations as the otherwise-seeming floozy stereotype is refreshing.
The sentimental choice of tune to end the show also nods toward a more contemporary reflection on the heightened levels of violence played throughout, and a large part of the evening’s environment must be credited to the live music, provided by The Vultures (Ben Nesrallah, Sophie Beaudet, Trevor Pool) and multi-skilled members of the circus cast on fiddles, banjos, washtub drums and harmonicas. In addition to Éloi Painchaud’s original compositions, familiar country-style tunes taken from pop-charts and movie soundtracks – including O Brother, Where Art Thou and Pulp Fiction – also drop hints that we shouldn’t take this Disneyed Wild West at face value.
What is unquestionable throughout is the clarity with which the simple plot is moved along – a topsy-turvy boudoir scene played out beneath and through a ruched velvet curtain; a chase across the carriage roofs of a moving steam train; a teeterboard challenge. In between the scenes of story-telling action are sequences of spectacle that serve instead a decorative, atmosphere-generating function, painting a lively picture of the outpost setting. There is a natural circus connection within the theme, with whip-cracking and lasso spinning – skills that have a circus lineage dating back to Buffalo Bill Cody and his many imitators – alongside specially adapted juggling, aerial and acrobatic routines. The bulk of the comedy comes from brilliant mimed scenes played out against pre-recorded sound-effects by Johan Prytz as The Cowboy (in this case, I prefer his alternative title on the hoardings: The Stranger), and later his invisible steed hurtles him across the imaginary plains through a pair of reins made out of aerial straps.
With Saloon, Cirque Éloize have definitely created a ‘what can we do?’ show, rather than a ‘what do we want to say?’, but I’ve a feeling there is a more interesting perspective in there trying to get out. Perhaps there’s an underlying fear of shaking a commercially stable formula, but Éloize are clever producers who make high quality, superbly constructed light entertainment. I think they have mileage in inviting their audiences to be clever along with them.