‘Happy Families’, by Circus Space BA Hons and Postgraduate Certificate students, directed by Billy Alwen

Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 5th July 2013

‘Remember: Fish, Friends, and Relatives go off after a few days.’

via @ashlie_nels on Twitter

This slightly surreal announcement, as we wait in the foyer of Jackson’s Lane Theatre, is indicative of the Alice-In-Wonderland style tale we are about to witness. We have each been handed a playing card from the traditional Happy Families deck, and instructed to find our ‘relations’ and then mingle, before entering the theatre for the graduating class of Circus Space’s BA Hons and Postgraduate programmes’ own ‘Happy Families’.

The black box studio is rigged with trapeze, cloud swing and chinese pole – as well as a classic pole-dancer’s stage – and bisected caravans and awnings forming the back of the playing space, referencing the travelling lifestyle associated with circus. What begins as a wholesome outdoor picture of vegetable growing and birdsong, however, quickly descends into a portrayal of stereotypes that I find distasteful.

The plot sees Eddy Parker (Ben Brown) separated from his young daughter (Lydia Harper), who then becomes lost in a world controlled by a strange puppet-master (Arce López Gutiérrez) and his magical pack of cards. Two jokers get hold of the pack, and begin to manipulate the inhabitants of the caravan park who, true to the Happy Families game, are caricatures based on popular perception. In commedia dell’arte influenced costumes, masks and make-up, the ‘Noisy Family’ are red-wigged Irish travellers in the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding milieu; The ‘Crook Family’ are Burberry wearing criminal poor in thick gold chain necklaces; The ‘Scoffer Family’ are fat-suited gluttonous holiday makers, and Gutiérrez and his Jacks (Beren D’Amico and Louis Gift) present mischievous and manipulative showmen (whose hearts, at least, are in the right place.)


Director Billy Alwen (Cirque Bijou) has, of course, been placed in the difficult position of combining the diverse skills of an entire class into an ensemble showcase. Sometimes the individual acts fit smoothly into the overall narrative – such as the food juggling and manipulation of Lynn Scott and James McCambridge as Mr and Mrs Scoffer – but others feel awkwardly tacked on. There was more story than skills – which is fine – but, unfortunately, in Act 1, more wafting prettily around the stage than story. Not fine.

In this matinee performance some of the skills were a little sloppy, but I was particularly impressed with Beth Williams’ sweet innocence as she presented first a pole-dance (which I was really pleased to see in the context of a circus show; less so about the sadly stereotypical dramatic context), and then – surprisingly – a graceful aerial straps segment, where her physical strength contrasts well with her delicate demeanor. The relaxed energy and ease McCambridge and Scott demonstrated with each other was also great to watch. Everyone in the audience was won over by Gutiérrez’ charming animation of bin-bag border collie Spike.

The second half, thankfully, is fueled much more by story development and relationships between the characters onstage. It opens strongly with an ensemble choreography that fills the dramaturgical role of a classic circus parade, providing pace, glamour, and something wonderful. D’Amico comes into his own with a genuine sense of mischief in his teasing of the Scoffers, which then develops into a playful acrobalance routine with Gift. They never take themselves or the audience too seriously, appearing as real brothers engaged in a warm-natured sibling rivalry, which makes them a joy to watch.

IMG_0859Helen Orford is entertaining as the stubborn granny intent on showing off her hula-hoop prowess, to the embarrassment of her family. The floral-patterned body-stocking complete with sagging boobs is a particular treat!

Gonzalo Basualdo and Heidi Hickling-Moore, as Mr and Mrs Noisy, are two of the most watchable members of this 13-strong cast, and their doubles rope act is well integrated into the plot-line, bursting with the irrationality of a pregnant woman. I only wish they had maintained the same level of vocal performance throughout the aerial work as they utilise on the ground. Throughout the show, all the performers seem to have an uncomfortable relationship between verbal interjection and mutism.

When little-girl-lost Daisy (Harper) finds herself alone again, she performs a heartfelt solo on the cloud swing to the emotive country-style singing of Tom Ball, accompanied by Orford on the harp. As her distraught father returns, this becomes a touching reunion sung by the entire cast, and Brown gets to show off his supreme flexibility on the aerial hoop in a duet with Harper. Although I found her faux-child acting and assimilated wonder grating at some points, here she seems more comfortable, and her vulnerability shines through.

I enjoyed the second half of the show very much, and would no doubt have enjoyed the first more if I hadn’t been offended by the production’s obtuse pandering to negative stereotypes, of people society already prejudices against too often. When the course of the story progresses steadily, the show is engaging and novel; it is not thought-provoking theatre, but it is, eventually, a touching tale, incorporating some accomplished physical skills.


04 comments on “‘Happy Families’, by Circus Space BA Hons and Postgraduate Certificate students, directed by Billy Alwen

  • Jen , Direct link to comment

    Hi Katherine, thanks for linking me to your review! So excited to find your blog, we should go see a show together someday! 🙂

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your review, but I guess I had different expectations?

    I was OK with the stereotypes – I was just happy that they bothered to tell a story, haha. And what with the show being mostly mime and based on a children’s card game, it made sense to go for stereotypes that people can easily relate to – anyway, I thought the characters were well depicted by the cast 🙂

    It wasn’t the most polished performance when I saw them on opening night either, but it being opening night, I could overlook that. Plus I had seem them already during their technical showcases, so I knew they were capable of a polished show. Also, I understand that the cast only had about a month or so to put the show together, and half the cast were involved in the Circus Maximus competition that was happening simultaneously. And they are students… All things considered, I thought they did really well~

    As for the wafting in Act 1, I had to agree with you there, it was a bit overlong. I understand the need to preserve energy for a 90 minute show, but yeah, more storytelling would’ve been great!

    By the way, did you get a chance to see Flown while it was at the Udderbelly? Really fantastic! I think you would’ve enjoyed it, it was concentrated, technically impressive, and very funny. My only complaint was that it was a bit short and left me wanting. While Happy Families made me feel quite satisfied 🙂

  • Katharine Kavanagh , Direct link to comment

    Thanks for your comment Jen! I agree, expectations and personal taste make such a massive difference to the way people receive a show (or any art!). That’s why I think it’s so important that more people start looking critically at what circus performers offer, to get a wider range of opinions on the table to help the art-form develop! I did think the performers did well – after all, it was not a drama-school showcase, but a circus-school one – but I felt the direction of the show was misguided. That said, it made me feel Something, and the worst thing a piece of theatre – or circus – can do is to leave you feeling nothing! Really wish I’d been able to catch their earlier showcase as well, but couldn’t make it unfortunately. I did see Flown, and my review is here: thecircusdiaries.com/2013/05/29/flown-by-pirates-of-the-carabina/
    I live in the Midlands, so not as much to see here as London or Bristol, but I get the train when money and time permit! Looking forward to catching a classic tenting circus soon to see how a review based on a show that’s very different to my usual dramatic codes transpires…

    • Douglas McPherson , Direct link to comment

      I look forward to your review of a big top show – and hope you get a good one. The Moscow State Circus has a great promo video on YouTube but they and Zippos are both frustratingly distant in Scotland at the moment.

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