Review from: Leyton Jubilee Park, London; 3rd August 2021
Fear is the theme tonight. So says the big booming voice as you take your seats in the Revel Pucks‘ circus tent (previously known as Company-Ish). Quite a jarring moment after just walking through their beautiful show ground: a circle of performers’ caravans, the inner circle filled with food vendors and popcorn machines, bulb-string lights and little hidden circus jokes. Clowns wobbling atop the big top tent, dancers welcoming you the area, and brightly dressed stewards ushering you to your seat. It all feels rather magical and trad. circus. So just what is this scary booming voice talking about? Fear is on the menu, but rather than leave it to the audience, this circus company wants you to see the fear in their performers! The show’s goal is to explore the various feelings of fear that accompany so many circus elements and acts, but that are often hidden away.
We meet our first performer – and everyones favourite – a small remote controlled Lion, who activates the Rube-Goldberd-esque machine that will send dominoes falling, balls rolling down tracks, doors crashing… until it ignites our show’s name in lights above the stage and starts the show! This comical little Lion will make several appearances throughout, each one better than the last and, in my opinion, is as genius as it is absurd. This weird mashup of a lion toy glued to some wheels is exactly what I was hoping would come out of the last year and a half’s lockdown insanity. His name is not listed on the cast sheet.
And so begins the show, our cast burst out all-singing all-dancing to some cheesy pop song (is this what they were talking about when they said get ready for fear?!?). They get the audience clapping and raring to go. To then suddenly decide, thats enough, time to pack it all away. We’re all hyped and ready, time to bust out the first act? Well, not quite… First we are introduced to the show’s resident clown, or more specifically, their Pierrot clown, played by Sam Goodburn in the traditional outfit (this would probably be considered as white frilly outfit, maybe with long sleeves and ruffles, big pompom buttons if you want to look very stereotypical but, perhaps unusually, no white makeup in this case). The role of the Pierrot is to be ‘sad’ and he manages to inspire that in the audience very well. We gush with “awwws” when we see him left out of the opening dance and cast banter. He is very, very good at making us feel sorry for him. Which perhaps works a little to well in this case, for on his failure to start a ‘mexican-wave’, members of the audience take pity and start one for him, meaning we all play round after round of waving our arms and cheering, while our supposed-to-be-sad clown just looks totally lost and unable to rein in his crowd. After that, the clown’s game of trying to warm up the audience feels a little forced and flat as we can’t ride the natural wave of silliness we created amongst ourselves. However, a comedic exit saves the skit as our clown’s double act partner (the Lion with wheels) comes in to scare him off.
The Scuffle Wing Spectacular runs like quite a traditional circus show: act after act, brief interludes by our two clown characters, plenty of clap-along-to-the-music moments and big “ooo” and “aahh” tricks. But there’s something about it that feels very contemporary too. Very modern and fresh. The costumes are bright coloured shirts, everyone wears the same. There’s no pining love story, and no trad-classics like ‘strong man lifts things while women do flying type things’. It’s fantastic. This neutral nature of the cast really helps to create a universal message when exploring fear. We don’t see male and female characters exploring fears that are gendered, just fears that relate to their circus skill and act.
The acts are wonderfully varied: juggling, teeterboard, straps, unicycle, and some nice, rarely seen additions like cloud swing and Cyr wheel. A mix of manipulation skills and big equipment or aerial skills keeps the audience thrilled, and the time flies by. Before each act we are presented with a fear element, such as broken glass, heights, falling, lions…. Then our performer must conquer the fear in order to complete their act. Our teeterboard team, Seb Parker, Shane Hampden and Emily Lannigan make excellent work of this, displaying high skill but still delivering on the message of the show. If the show ever needed to be condensed down into just ten minutes it would just be their act. Appearing the most comfortable on stage, their portrayal of fear – and of overcoming it – is the most believable, and their group interaction is fun and natural. A special mention also to Poppy Plowman who has created a superb tight wire routine, full of tricks that blow your mind and has undoubtable confidence on her equipment. It was a highlight of the show for me. Annie Zita in the finale cloud swing manages to give the audience their own taste of fear as she soars above, with every swing getting her head closer to touching the big top canvas, utilising some clever throw-outs as fake drops or falls just to make sure everyone’s heart leaps out their chest.
Our clown returns a final time to the stage to confront a now human-sized Lion, who has been steadily growing with each appearance. The Lion’s roar is now a call to dance and the two share a loving embrace. There’s probably some sort of metaphor they’re trying to put across there and if you think you can figure it out without even seeing the show well then good for you but don’t tell anyone.
There are a lot of ‘whys’ when watching this show. Why did they all suddenly do this? Why did the music just do that? Why did they randomly start a volleyball game but then never take it anywhere? Why did they choose to suddenly all sing on stage as the soundtrack for that one act? And why that song? Why is it still a thing that audiences find it hilarious for a male performer to wear female clothes and pretend it sucks? And why even put something like that in a show? Why was the clown hiding in the rafters? Why did some things feel well rehearsed and others the opposite? Why do some performers feel under-used despite their skill?
None of these whys really interfere with the general enjoyment of the show, but they will leave most audience members feeling like the whole thing is a bit slapdash. Which has a weird sort of charm to it. We know the production of this show was over a short period of time, and that they’ve only just started to perform it. That they’ve come up against logistical troubles, and not just covid related ones. So it’s a tribute to the crew and performers they pull off an amazing show. The punk, thrown together, bit of a “we don’t care about that element” vibe is fun, and as much as I enjoy it I still hope that it can be made tighter, more exact, more streamlined in its messages. There’s always room for improvement in the circus. Just as I’d always feared.