An attempt to assuage my guilt and doubts through analysis of my critique of Puffball

This week I have had to produce a very difficult review. A show that I really did not enjoy, yet can recognise as a valuable social project. With two performers in the cast whom I know personally.

The biggest challenge as a critic was to be honest about my experience, whilst fair to the various company members; to see past my personal taste to describe the £22-per-ticket show accurately; to recognise that my subjective viewpoint will never be universal, and yet still give interested parties a valid reference.

On top of this, the 500 word review also had to fit the style guidelines of the publication, and be relevant to their readership.

But here on my blog, I can say what I want, so here is a little experiment in form.

Below is the original review as published by ThisIsCabaret. What follows are my notes as scribbled during the show, unedited impressions from the heat of the moment. Which would you rather read? Which is fairer? Which more true? Which more valuable, and to who?
Please feed back your thoughts and comments!

Puffball is a complicated show to critique, as it was developed partly as a social circus project, and partly as a professional production. There is an apparent theatrical naivety to much of the direction, giving a juvenile feel to the material, yet the young performers are sharing genuine emotions and heartfelt concepts that rise, at moments, above the clichés.

There are beautiful – and grotesque – visual images here, set to Jules Maxwells original score of delicate lounge jazz and sumptuous folk harmonies, which evoke the struggles of finding love and your own identity. Developed over a year, through workshops with young people across the UK who identify themselves as LGBTQ, artist Mark Storer has combined snippets of real life stories and experiences with elements of circus performance and visual artistry. The performers onstage comprise of professional circus artists, musicians, and novices selected from initial workshops; the large-scale ensemble nature of the piece waters down some strong skilled elements from individuals of both camps.

Tanwen Watson shows versatility and emotional range as an actress as well as lithe aerialist in a touching doubles trapeze act performed with Hamish Tjoeng from a suspended bed, and in her cameo as comic giant Tim; Tjoeng also shows us a darker side in his physical performance during a tense dance of power imbalance with Diego F. Martinez from a suspended chain.

Max Beecher (MaxLastic) is a serenely balletic contortionist producing images of extreme grace most usually associated with femininity, and plays a part in an achingly familiar love triangle between Max Calas Sevé on his trampoline and Benjamin Gregor trapped beneath. There is a flash of fire from Christopher Willoughby (Chrysalis), and some interesting play with air currents and hanging drapes of silk from Alice Ellerby on her cloud swing, but these visual tokens never garner the audible response that circus acts are known for.

Most illustrative of the inner turmoil that bleeds through the fabric of Puffball is Paul Evans‘ expressive static trapeze, with its gasp inducing changes of pace, surprising drops and – ouch – 10 backward elbow rotations. This pain is real.

There is a definite feel of teenage angst to the whole show. The emotions may be universal, but the expressions of them sometimes lack depth and subtlety. Texts are raw and unpolished, so when Jolene O’Sullivan’s triumphant pride and passion shine through in ownership of a hard-won individuality, I am reminded of reality TV stories and left cold.

With highly personal work editing is always a challenge, and this smorgasbord of activity fails to allow the fleeting moments of absurd humour or tender connection to develop into their full potential. Traditionally circus is characterised by vibrant changes in dynamic, which Puffball avoids, maintaining a sedate pace throughout. This is more live art, reflecting Storer’s roots, and often resorts to stock images, neglecting some of the naked possibilities provided by the elegant set.

Perhaps, on a mainstream stage, recurring motifs of being wrapped in cling-film, blood-letting, and rituals of cleansing are escaping their previous realms of aprés-avant garde performance art and devised student theatre; then again, perhaps there is a reason that they have rarely succeeded on a grander scale.

I leave with the lyric from one of the show’s musical accompaniments resounding in my brain: “Don’t indulge in sleepless nights, lead the dark into the light.”

And from the pages of my note book…

Red lit body bag, shrink wrapped package meal.
Sponge bath, clothed, blue light, drips.
Band stage. ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Floating mattress. Vertical ladder.
Broken body DSR.
House lights down reveal Evans on trap. Blood drips.

Lounge singer and minimal piano composition.
Sounds of tearing, drips and poured water.

Personal pain and struggle. A bit worthy. Human rights?

Making lipstick and dress from discarded plastic sheet.
Tenderness as Chrysalis wraps Evans and carries off.
Is this a prologue and a beat is going to kick in?

Lots of cleaning. Lots of mess. Chalk dust. Liquids. Sweeping broken toys.
Beatnik poetry.
Darkness. ‘Things a 9yr old shouldn’t feel/do.’

Balletic contortion in pink nightwear.
Barbie bat ‘n’ ball.
Bodies emerge everywhere, appearing, previously unseen.

Atypical circus-body grotesquery.

Tuba, blonde hair and vintage purple dress.
Minimalist jazz. Squeak of trampoline entrance.
Glinting silver and odd angles.

Isolation of acts. Existing in but not sharing the same world.

Laughter (in seats behind me) – either undesired or moment not clearly directed!

Hazy + low lit, low key.

(Again from seats behind): ‘I actually want to kill myself’

Lost it’s circus heart & become devised theatre. Unfortunately, these are not experienced devised theatre artists. Dated, saying v. little. Performance art roots – beatnik. Franco B.

Aerial bathtub skimming stage has visual impact, but was not a skilled act.

Beds and mattresses. Futility and sense of impossibility in song lyrics – isn’t this also dated attitude now? Rethinking this is uncomfortable. Global situation or still in uk?

Possibilities of Watson + Tjoeng on aerial mattress (monkey bars)
‘Don’t indulge in sleepless nights, lead the dark into the light’ (lyric)
‘Doubles trapeze’ communicative of human relations + interaction poem
Watson – comic as Tim! Dancing mattresses absurdly amusing & bring some much needed lightness.

When people pull faces + laugh at the term ‘performance art’, it’s nights like this they have in mind.

Juggling pillows.

Another monologue about insecurities over love and lust. This might matter to the young things, but by 33 you’ve passed that stage.

Body folded in trampoline. A few nice images!
Unfolding of trampoline. Competent performance from Calaf. Complexities of human heart, love triangle situation. Separate universes that feel like they fail to connect. Skills and stamina!

It’s morose.

Prettiness of harmonies and melodies.

Moments of everything but no threads! We’re here to watch their isolation. It’s not fun! teenage angst=20something angst – 20s are the new teens

Glimpse of a relationship + its power imbalances + compromises. Clanking chains. Lights to catch contours, shadows and highlights of muscular bodies.

Band gives us a much needed injection of energy – cups – blood – Kira O’Reilly

Doesn’t know what it is or who its audience is.
Derogatory comments from ladies sitting behind more engaging than onstage activity.

Bored. High heels. Not absurd enough to be funny. Flames and breathing fire.
‘Diary entries’ needed editing.
Pride and joy in ‘Take a good fucking look’. And I feel great for the performer – it was genuine and beautiful.
But do we need Jeremy Kyle on our stages?! X-factor Reality TV sob stories?

Hard to be damning about such a personal piece of work, whose roots were in issues that I care about and believe in.
It’s also hard to find positives to write about this show!
25 mins to go and I’m checking the time and my neighbours are talking about when they can get out.

Obvious ‘Look there are all these types of different!’ Celebration, ok. Did we have to spend 75 mins to get here?
Skits, no virtuosity.
Cleanliness + purity .v. mess?

Music builds.
Evans – emotionally expressive routine with gasp inducing changes of pace & surprising drops. 10 back revolutions on elbows!
But I don’t know ‘why’! ‘Life is a struggle?!’
More cleaning up.

Folky finish.
(But it wasn’t the end!)

Cloud swing face first into hanging drapes of silk creates some interesting effects with air currents, but artist’s lunged drops fail to elicit any audible response from the crowds.
Ellerby’s energy + enthusiasm were to be commended though. one of the rare occurrences we were treated to a smile throughout!

Sexuality aside, circus itself is ‘queer’.

Stairs only used as viewing platform.

Ups + downs & absurdities of life + human interrelations.

Some strong physical performances and some very weak. Most noticeable is the lack of direction experience for a theatre piece of this scale.
Cuts + Edits please!

Flour globe and faces.
Cabaret, Jacques Brel style.
Overuse of chalk-dust becoming a contemporary circus cliché.

The word ‘pretentious’ is bandied about by departing audience members. Did it really run 110 minutes when I was told 85 by the PR team?!

I had a problem with the various labels used to define it. I found it slightly offensive. Very bleak. Very few moments of positivity. Very few moments of circus skill. A little patronising. A little self-indulgent. More than a little.

Certainly I can see that with retrospect I was better able to reflect on what I’d seen and its various qualities to make a more rounded judgement, less confined by my own emotional responses.  I can also see how hurriedly scribbled notes made for my later distillation can seem harsh, trite or vulgar. But more evocative? I think so?

(I’d also like to mention that I rarely jot as much down during a performance as I did here, but my lack of interest in the onstage proceedings turned my attention to the page instead.)

I think my major difficulties with this job came from the fact that:

a) I came to critique ‘circus’, whereas the production was more ‘live art utilising circus skills’; I don’t feel ‘qualified’ to comment on ‘live art’ as I’m not very familiar with its trends, history and repertoire.

b) I found it very difficult to combine the standards by which I judge a ‘professional’ production and those by which I appreciate amateur and community work.

This experience has made me realise that since starting The Circus Diaries, I have been focusing on learning about circus history, performance and methodologies, and now need to delve deeper into the theories of criticism in general.

More thoughts to follow…

04 comments on “An attempt to assuage my guilt and doubts through analysis of my critique of Puffball

  • Douglas McPherson , Direct link to comment

    Your ‘notes’ read like poetry! Shortened a bit, but with no changes to the actual words, you’d have a poem that I bet was better than the show. I think you could have found a niche – reviews penned as spontaneous poetry. I’m serious. I’d love to read some more reviews in that style. Maybe thisiscabaret would let you do a podcast – performance poetry reviews!

  • Jon Davison , Direct link to comment

    This is a very interesting question about what the job of criticism is. Personally, in this case, I would like to read a third version, one which articulates more those responses you had which appear in your notes. I fully appreciate the possibility of the critical ‘poem’ as well, though.

    I think criticism contains at least two important elements: observation and interpretation. Reviews which only do one or the other are much weaker than those which do both. Your notes tell me something about both – actual instances of what happened in the performance, then your response. The critic’s response can be emotional and it can be intellectual. And it can also be active, i.e. leaving the auditorium! All are valid, when articulated in such a way that we know where you are coming from. So your comments about your own doubts and lack of knowledge about live art are vital to express, but that does not invalidate your response. As long as you declare your position, all is good.

    I think this is what makes a review of interest to a reader. Because if you share with us your observation and responses, you are simply doing what any of us does when we watch a show – we observe and respond.

    Which then explains why the first review here is kind of difficult to penetrate. There is nowhere to get hold of the thing. I’m not sure what really happened in the show and I’m not sure what your response was. It’s almost as if your observations and your responses are being mixed up. Which is probably what you had to do, in order to disguise things.

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