Review from: Assembly Spiegeltent, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 18th August 2022
Edinburgh Fringe regulars, the Australia-based Head First Acrobats, are back with another new production, having established themselves as a high energy, high skilled circus that love a good theme to run with. Railed delivers all that.
We enter to some American rock and roll music blasting. Cactus and saloon door props, wooden chairs and an old bar sit off to the side of stage. As we take our seats you half expect a tumble weed to come blowing through, it’s very atmospheric and the idea of “it’s the Old West” won’t be lost on anybody. It’s all a bit on the nose, but Head First aren’t ones to deal in subtext and subtlety. They’re a circus that wants to thrill, and this is traditional circus style, with added storytelling, no more. There are no deeper meanings being explored here, which is fine, because their target audience (with the Spiegeltent venue and late afternoon time slot) are here for a good time, to lose themselves in tricks, stunts and fast paced entertainment. We don’t want to think about climate change, we want to see guys rip their shirts off. So turn off your brain and settle in for the diet-coke-commercial version of circus.
Hold onto your hats though, because theres A LOT that happens in this show. Let’s run through that first. We have a group acrobatic act to start. Bursting onto stage, our performers dance, flip, tumble and tackle each other after their successful bank robbery. Hooting and hollering, beers are downed, punches thrown. It’s a strong start that gives people reassurance: yes it is that kind of show you booked! Blood, sweat and sick are a-plenty in the opening number, with well timed jokes and a chance for each performer to show what their ‘character’ is all about. Following a similar model to Elixir, the last show I saw of theirs, theres a strong one, a smart one, and a comedically hapless one. It’s all nice and easy. But they all Have To Be Sexy. That’s Head First’s calling card: must be a sexy guy. Orientation is irrelevant, but you gotta be able to do whatever circus skill you do in as suggestively sexy way as possible. A worthy attempt.. some acts are easier to make sexy than others it seems, with the audience falling into the old classic of ‘if he take his top off we cheer the most’. Meaning we get strange reactions throughout: big stunts and high level tricks get a lukewarm reception, but lick the edge of your prop and apparently that’s a crowd favourite. The audience is on autopilot as we dive straight into the show…
We get a three-high straight away in the opening act, followed by some excellent diabolo sequences, a jaw-hang aerial act, whip cracking and ladder skills, bottle juggling, jump rope tricks, a chair balance act, duo acrobatics, straps and teeterboard. Clowning, slapstick and dance numbers throughout and plenty of audience interaction. A show has never been more deserving of being called jam packed. There’s so much delivered in this one hour, and if you don’t like it, don’t worry because in a few seconds theres something else on the way! Some would look at this as a sign the tiktok/instagram world has infiltrated the arts, but I’m far more certain it’s because artists have had two years off to mess around with stuff and now they have a million ideas to show you.
That might be to its detriment, as there’s so much pushed at you it’s hard to even remember everything I saw in the show. Some of the skills are so fleeting it’s got a bit of a ‘throw anything at the wall and see if it sticks’ vibe, which feels out of character for this company. In Elixir they had multiple skills, but each got the time it deserved and it felt as though they had built a story around the skills they had. Railed, however, feels more like they decided on a theme then tried to shoehorn in things like whips and whisky bottles to suit. Sliding five whisky bottles across a table is not something that’s easy per se…. but when you’ve just witnessed one of the best ladder acro performances you’re ever likely to see it just feels underwhelming. It’s pointless filler.
Thankfully those parts are short, so we come away seeing some amazing circus from this show, highlights of which include another exceptional ladder act from Cal Harris, who is so smooth and quick with his prop you forget just how incredibly dangerous what he’s doing is. Liam Dummer delivers an excellent aerial straps routine: the tricks are well connected and, showcasing his strength and range, he doesn’t need to rely on fake drops and audience scares to make his routine a thrill to watch. Top of the bill for this review however goes to Jordan Twartz for his fantastic diabolo routine, running vertical/vertax diabolo tricks as if it’s nothing, slick, calculated and oh-so-satisfying connections. He’s got some clever creative moves that make the routine very dynamic and physical, showing it’s not just technical tricks he’s mastered but all kinds of body moves and wraps. Then returning to stage in the second half for more double diabolo tricks and culminating in a three diabolo high run which, in the surprisingly low ceiling venue of the tent, is no easy feat! Jordan provides a perfect break in-between the other acts which, when seen all together – handstands, handstands on a chair, handstands on someone else, backflip off this and that – can start to feel same-y. True circus fans will want to see Railed for the diversity of the skills on display and the diabolo is the top of that list.
The show takes a complete swerve before the finale, where we are suddenly introduced to the concept of the cowboys’ sexually frustrated horse (I feel like other reviews say things like ‘well endowed horse’ but biologically speaking it’s probably averagely endowed for a horse…) who wishes to win over a sexy unicorn. It’s a clown skit that is most certainly for adults only, and although the show has had lots of strip tease, sexy dancing and innuendo already, this part seems to dial it right up to an 11 with no warning. It suddenly feels like this show should be on much later at night and with a drunker audience. There’s laughter but some in the audience just look confused, it is funny and they aren’t the first/only circus to have their cast dress as animals and fake fuck on stage, it just is so suddenly surreal it kinda ruins the whole cowboy thing they’ve been trying so hard to shove in our faces. It’s a shame that it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the show. And they’ve made us think that tone was very important to them. We’ve put up with some eye-rolling gags and slapstick, tricks put in just because it’s cowboy themed… all sorts, but we’ll go with them. We’re on their side and we’re enjoying a tongue-in-cheek bordering on naughty show. They sell it to you as an audience by seeming sincere in trying to build a world: a circus burlesque cowboy world. But then it’s ‘ah dash all’ for some quick sex laughs and suddenly something has shifted. Suddenly it’s not about the theme. The skit has all the hallmarks of having going down so well with certain crowds or in the development phase that they now won’t lose it. Maybe having a talking point is worth it. There’s nothing wrong with playing with storytelling concepts and taking surreal or artistic license with the direction of your show and it’s great to not take yourself too seriously. So then why try claw it back with a ‘sheriff shootout’ finale…?
The ending of the teeterboard makes for a nice match to the high energy start. With dynamite lit, and the sheriff and his posse surrounding our performers, they have to bust out or be gunned down. Three nice teeterboard tricks from Anthony Saltalamacchia get great crowd reaction and the Railed crew go out with a bang.
Overall this show is a fun and frenzied watch, certain to keep you entertained. Interesting choices in the show make you wonder what’s gone on behind the scenes of the company, especially with so many new faces, but Head First have provided what we have come to desire from them, skill, sweat and sexiness. And sometimes it’s not a bad thing to be that one trick pony.