‘Filament’, by Short Round Productions

Review from: Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 5th August 2019

During Edinburgh Fringe, one or two small circus productions usually pop up from the USA, but they’re unusual elsewhere in Europe. Filament is the first time I’ve seen theatrical circus of this scale come out of the US, and is the debut production from Joseph Pinzon‘s company, Short Round Productions. There is a resounding youth to the show, full of anthem pop songs and archetypal high school characterisation, and the simplicity of the narrative sometimes belies the skills of the international artists involved.

Eight performers make up the company of cool kids, tough kids, awkward kids and – across the board – hormone-driven kids trying to hook up. A new guy arrives in town, and a bespectacled girl with fumbling mannerisms is smitten; so, while The Sexy One tries to help The Speccy One become more attractive, The Tough One gets in touch with his emotions, The Playboy One gets his comeuppance, and The Gender-Fluid One learns to backflip. And, eventually, to find romance. The show is sweet and vibrant and the storytelling mime is usually clear – although I do miss an apparent plot point where one of the female characters loses her boyfriend. I had her down as The Asexual One.

When it begins – a spotlight illuminating each cast member in turn and revealing how they each perform a role when in public – I have hopes that Filament is going to challenge conventions of identity presentation more than it does. There’s a period in the middle where I worry that, actually, it’s only going to confirm stereotypes rather than subvert them at all. We do eventually get away from them a little, but I could do with More and Sooner. The Grease-esque plotline is fun, but contemporary teens are way more woke than this, hormones notwithstanding. The infamous ‘bend and snap‘ from Legally Blonde seems to have inspired a recurring motif where the girls practice trying to be as attractive as possible to the boys. For their part, the boys invoke a lot of macho posturing to increase their own supposed attractiveness. Whilst we see some evidence of the anxiety of trying to fit in that underlies these behaviours, the supposed conventional solutions aren’t being contested, so the show appears to be reinforcing the idea that it’s appropriate for teenagers to conform to these expected standards of what is or isn’t desirable. I think our youth deserve better, and many of them these days demand it.

What is incontestable though, are the high production values and exuberant polish Filament presents. Arrays of flashing bulbs make every scene seem like part of an arena pop concert, every character the star of their own life. The use of mobile phones for selfies and snapshots brings home the reality of modern youth, where identity is as much what your socials show as it is about your irl relationships.

The circus skills too are high class, the solo numbers evocative of the character’s moods. Particularly expressive is Jess Mews as Ting, with her angry hula hoop manipulation on discovering a romantic betrayal, darting them like daggers towards the offenders, and ending in an emotional whirl of a four hoop split. Mark Keahi Stewart’s Rufus reveals a softer side beneath his back-turned baseball cap and ‘wifebeater’ vest, in a hand balance of sways and waves that contrast with the hard front he presents among his peers. Bekah Burke as Sara is resolute and optimistic for a single future, intertwining only with her aerial hoop, and Tom Ball’s Steve discovers a freedom on the dance trapeze that isn’t apparent when hanging out as one of the boys or as one of the girls. (That’s what I read into it anyway).

As I’m watching the show I am reminded very much of the youthful energy and vibe of Throwback, by Silver Lining, so it was interesting to note Ball’s involvement in both when I checked the cast list afterwards.

The new guy in town character is CD (Bertan Canbeldek), who wins over the local group by displaying varied bounce juggling patterns of 3, 4, 5 and 6 ball and breakdance moves. The girl who falls for him is Leslie (the fabulous Allison Schieler), a backbending contortionist who takes her ‘sexy pose’ tuition to comical extremes. We also see Anna Kichtchenko as Florence, who goes into raptures over a kiss on a counterweighted sling of aerial silk. I’ve never seen the apparatus used in this way before, and she captures the thrill and intensity of first love in a sequence of dynamic leg wraps and elated spins around the space above the stage. Completing the cast is Oscar Kaufmann as two-timing Chester. He performs on Cyr wheel while the four women gyrate between the flaring bulbs at the back of the set like burlesque dancers in his rampant hormone-ridden teenage mind. His white wheel is introduced to the stage at the same time as Burke’s white aerial hoop is rigged, which lead me to expect some sort of interaction between the two pieces of equipment, but the routines are kept apart so I don’t understand the visual connection.

Apart from a few ad-libbed character comments, the piece is wordless and a strong pop-rock soundtrack fuels the clear physical character work that drives the gentle story along. I clock LCD Soundsystem, Kings of Leon, and Florence and the Machine among others.

We eventually see the blossoming of a non-heterosexual relationship alongside the conventionalised patterns of courtship, and the audience are clearly invested in the sweetness of their story as their ‘first kiss’ gets a spontaneous applause. Filament presents, though, quite a conservative representation of teenage love-lives in its entertaining and amusing seventy minutes. The High School Musical of circus.

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