Review from: Ocean Park, Cardiff; 2:30pm, 7th Sept 2019
When a show proclaims itself ‘a celebration of failure’ in its promo materials, I set myself up for the possibility that it will be a genuine mess. When that show is by a brand new company, on its opening weekend, I suspect that possibility is high. When I know the director of the company, I also feel really nervous, knowing I’m going to have to give an honest opinion later.
But… SURPRISE! The Big Bagaga Show totally tipped my expectations on their head, delivering a witty, entertaining, light delight of a show, that also holds up a socio-political role model exemplified in the visible community spirit and communal work ethic running through the whole experience. Company-Ish call themselves ‘Post-Contemporary Circus’. If we’re playing a labels game, I’d be more inclined towards New New Circus. As well as sharing a self-selecting family feel associated with the 1970s New Circus movement, the Big Bagaga‘s costuming and live music revisit this same era of ideological underpinning and optimistic endeavour.
Living wagons are arranged in front of the blue two-pole big top instead of hidden away behind, so we are welcomed into this community as we pass under a metal truss archway to approach the venue. On top, big yellow letters on a brown wooden sign announce the odd show title and Luke Hallgarten, director and performer, sits alongside, grinning and waving down to us in a yellow suit jacket and brown paisley shirt, one sock yellow, one sock red. There’s a small bar constructed from half a fishing boat, and candyfloss and popcorn being made to order from concessions near the tent’s entrance. It’s easy to guess that these are the performers, but not so easy to know if they’re already in costume or if this is just their own eccentric vintage style.
The vibe is everything I love about circus. Everything I fell for when I first fell into its orbit volunteering with NoFit State’s Tabù eleven years ago. People mucking in together, doing what needs to be done, and having fun working to present high quality skills to slightly stunned audience members witnessing another way of life. Hardly surprising, perhaps, as the majority of the Big Bagaga company are members of NoFit’s current Lexicon cast, who have found time to rehearse and plan whilst on tour and then been offered further supported as an associate company to fully put the new show together.
Fans of NoFit State may also recognise a stylistic influence from regular director Firenza Guidi. Whilst we sit on benches facing a stage laid at one side of the tent instead of surrounding the action, the interacting and interchanging flow of music, circus disciplines, snatches of monologue and visual imagery indicate the company’s lineage. The cast list picks out a discernible specialism for each performer, but in reality they all present a richer and more diverse set of skills than given here (see below).
There’s a lot to laugh at, and much to marvel at in the ingenious adaptations the company have made to conventional disciplinary presentations. Opening with one woman’s increasingly unexpected Rube Goldberg journey across the set (game of human Mouse Trap anyone?!), the show leads us through an aerial straps act where getting airborne becomes the height of achievement, tests the limits of roller-skating choreography by ramping up the speed over and again, and good-naturedly pits jugglers against each other as they try to outdo one another’s tricks.
A basketball trick is attempted so many times the traditional ‘third-time lucky’ set-up is long forgotten and the stakes for success feel genuine as I tilt closer and closer to the edge of my seat, wincing, groaning and cheering along with the crowd as we wait for the nonsensical human achievement we are now invested in. For those who like to read deeper meaning into their performing arts events, that seems like a good place to start. Nonsensical human achievement, and the investment needed to make life both bearable and sustainable.
The other half of the fishing boat bar appears centre-stage to indicate a short interval part way through the 75 minute production, and this transition could be woven more thoroughly into the show to match the rest of its integrated feel. Three portaloo cabins (if my memory serves) seem adequate for this matinee audience of families, generating just a small queue that dissipates in plenty of time for the second half. It may not be a ‘children’s show’ per se, but the little girl behind me loudly tells her mum ‘No, this is the best thing ever’ at three different acts, and I don’t notice any of the little ones acting distracted. With something for all members of the family, circus tradition runs through The Big Bagaga Show alongside the innovations it presents. If ever an artform were pre-disposed to flourish in the era of metamodernism, circus is it.
Director: Luke Hallgarten
Rigging design: Joachim Aussibal
Costume design: Emily Redsell & Cecilia Zucchetti
Lighting design: Simon Wall
Music director: Danny Arbiter
Prop maker: Mike Alldred
Joachim Aussibal: Stand up
Louis Be: Musician
Tom Collins: Acrobat
Luke Hallgarten: Juggler
Poppy Plowman: Tightwire
Emily Redsell: Trapeze
Mariano Rocco: Aerial hoop
Lisa Savini: Musician & performer
Simon Wall: Drummer
Cecilia Zucchetti: Juggler