‘LIMBO’, by Underbelly Productions, Southbank Centre and Strut & Fret

London Wonderground Spiegeltent, SouthBank Centre. 15th May 2014

Mikael Bres, Hilton Denis and Danik Abishev in LIMBO IMAGE: PUMPphotography

Returning for it’s second season at London Wonderground, I’ve seen more PR for LIMBO than for any other circus show in my UK experience to date. (And yes, that includes Cirque Du Soleil). So my expectations were high, and I was rewarded with some divine technical skills, gorgeous lighting effects, and genius ‘jank’ sounds. Where the show doesn’t quite live up to its hype, for me, is in the metaphor that loosely links the evenings’ acts; my interpretation is that our lives are the constant dance between heaven and hell that leaves us neither one place nor the other. But the show makes me work hard to ‘get it’. I’d rather the acts were clearly developed towards a unified theme or not at all.

Band leader Sxip Shirey is the non-speaking ring-master, who is nonetheless both vocal and eloquent through the array of sound making devices that mark his unique live soundscape composition. In a white suit sprouting angelic feathers, but with a rock star’s devil-may-care attitude, he is apparently the controlling force that causes the performers around him to contort, climb, fall and spin, manipulating them with a whistle, a flick of the wrist, or an eerily resonant breath.

Under the hazy Spiegeltent’s red and white striped canvas ceiling, firefly fairy lights dangle in glass bulbs, and the circus artists sashay onto the tiny round stage to join the band (as fully committed as any clown orchestra). There is a sense of the 1930’s here in the fairground wardrobe. And a giant incongruous bunny head.

(The bunny head doesn’t feature again until the final moments of the show, and seems to have nothing to do with anything. All I get is possibly an obscure reference to Circa’s production Beyond, which also appeared in the London Wonderground Spiegeltent last year?)

Jonathan Nosan’s contortion IMAGE: Lisa Thomson

A teasing moment of a feather balance becomes obsolete as the performers whisk away from the stage, leaving Jonathan Nosan at Shirey’s mercy. The office suit Nosan wears highlights the unearthliness of his back bending contortion, which is at its most uncanny when he lies on his front, bending his leg over towards his mouth so he can stroke, kiss and whisper sweet nothings to his foot.

Despite the intimate cabaret setting, I’m not convinced that we as audience are fully present to the performers until Hilton Denis burns up the stage with his spirited tap dancing, radiating warmth and enthusiasm . The infectious rhythms are particularly exciting when Evelyne Allard adds a spin or two on the bolas.

In a cage made from beams of light, Danik Abishev is a master of his art, hand-balancing across 5 poles at head height, with his wrists and ankles chained. He connects strongly with the audience, confident in his extreme ability to thrill with daring, twisting angles and jumps; as the controlling figure of Shirey demands more and more, Abishev continues to astound, traversing the 5 poles on just one hand.

Hand-balance from Danik Abishev IMAGE: Lisa Thomson
Hand-balance from Danik Abishev IMAGE: Lisa Thomson

An uninspired rigging transition is brightened by a thwarted sexual encounter between Allard and Nosan, as they try to strip endless layers of underwear. The cast of performers appear through and around each others’ acts, with slight costume shifts for every visit; they are the souls caught in this limbo life. It strikes me that they are also caught in a pull between high gloss production values and the grit of a sideshow experience as Director Scott Maidments’s stylish aesthetic tries to meld the two.

As Mikael Bres’ chinese pole is rigged, we watch Shirey present his Glass Bowls with Red Marbles – one of many specially adapted instruments used – and its otherworldly sound. His band members Mick Stuart and Grant Arthur are also worth watching with their eclectic collection of brass, bits, and bobs. Bres’ rakish charm is delightful; he has a remarkable lightness of touch in his performance, and a knowing humour as he plays with the audience at every headlong drop.

An amusing acrobatic skit where even Arthur is roped in as an unsuspecting base is followed by an incomprehensible section of cast members popping up to show their faces to the inexplicable chants of ‘who put the pudding in the pudda‘ (as far as I can make out).

Heather Holliday and Danik Abishev in LIMBO IMAGE: Lisa Thomson
Heather Holliday and Danik Abishev in LIMBO IMAGE: Lisa Thomson

Sultry Heather Holliday combines her pin-up era sex appeal with carnival freak-show skills, swallowing double swords, and then a light sabre which we still see glowing through the skin of her throat.

Flames light up the mirrored walls of the venue as a blazing box is wheeled onstage. We feel the heat from the pyro bursts which lick to the ceiling, and I almost miss the illusion of performers appearing from within the previously burning box. The music takes an infernal turn, and Abishev mounts a flaming balancing ladder, using a mask to allow him to breathe through his smoky acrobatics, while Holliday eats and breathes fire, seemingly in her element.

Amid the fading fumes of paraffin are raised 5 bendy sway poles, (á la Strange Fruit) which Holliday, Bres, Nosan, Abishev and Denis mount in an almost-ascension. In a rare choreography they dive inwards, reaching out to each other, and to us as they fly back out over our heads. Bres finds himself a much deserved drink of water when he lifts a bottle from a member of the crowd, returning it on his next swoop.

Sxip Shirey as LIMBO's Master of Ceremonies IMAGE: Lisa Thomson
Sxip Shirey as LIMBO’s Master of Ceremonies IMAGE: Lisa Thomson

The true ascension moment comes with Allard’s joyful aerial hoop, innocent and beautiful, gilded with sunbeams, culminating in another of Paul Kieve‘s illusions. The lyric from Shirey’s final number is a touching one: ‘When you stand before St. Peter above, he just asks you one question – who do you love.’

I may not have loved the entire show, but I love the spirit of novelty that brings the unexpected back into the circus arena, and the exquisite moments of brilliance that stood out like diamonds in the rough and tumble sideshow world.


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