Publicity Image for 'Waldo's Circus of Magic and Terror'. A photo of two performers sat on a raised tight wire in a dark circus tent. The circus tent is decorated with gold stars. To the right is the main character, Krista, who is a young white woman of short stature with short brown hair looking away into the distance with a smile on her face and arms outspread. To the left is Gerhard, a young white man with short brown hair, who gazes intently at the other performer, Krista, as he reaches his hand to touch her. Both characters’ costumes are in the style of the 1930s. Hers is a shiny silver beaded corset with white silk shorts, tights and black shoes. He looks elegant in brown trousers and a brown waistcoat over a long-sleeved white shirt and black shoes. Underneath the two performers burns a small fierce fire with red flames, reaching the soles of their feet and signifying the danger beneath this love story

‘Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror’, by Extraordinary Bodies, Bristol Old Vic and Plymouth Theatre Royal

Review from: Bristol Old Vic, 16th March 2023

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror‘ is advertised as a new musical, and it does have songs in, but it also has much more. To me, it feels like a play with music, dance, creative access design, and circus acrobatics mixed together. And the combination is very effective. The show is powerful, with funny moments, beautiful moments, and devastatingly sad moments as it reminds us of terrible things that have happened to people who are considered ‘different’ through history.

At the heart of the show is a story about a troupe of circus performers in 1930s Germany. Most members of the troupe – both in the story and in real life – are Deaf or disabled, and some are gender queer or LGBT+. Many stories set around this period of history focus on the awful things that Jewish people suffered under the Nazi regime, but this production reminds us that other groups of minority people’s were also targeted for abuse and worse. The show highlights the experiences of people with physical differences, people with learning disabilities, people with non-conforming gender or sexuality, and people from non-white backgrounds, as they were all gradually forced out of jobs and into hiding, or faced horrific attacks.

Extraordinary Bodies, the company who have created the show, exist to champion and showcase the work of diverse performers, and are a collaboration between circus company Cirque Bijou, and DIverse City, a performing arts company working with Deaf and disabled artists for social justice. Their expertise in creating inclusive, accessible work is obvious. Every show is ‘chilled’ – which is similar to what other companies might call ‘relaxed’ – meaning that if audience members need to move around or make noise then no-one will mind. Their website explains that visual stories are provided for those who want them, and warnings will be provided if there are going to be any loud noises or flashing lights (although I don’t remember any instances of this in the show). Caption screens are included as part of the stage set, which help me as a sighted audience member follow the spoken and sung text, and help me understand what characters are saying when they communicate in BSL or other languages. Pre-recorded audio-description is available through headsets at every show for visually impaired people (although I should mention that some of the cues were off during this preview, overlapping with onstage speech or missing the communication of visual ‘bits’). Live BSL interpretation is also provided onstage by the wonderfully expressive and elegant Max Marchewicz. Max creates a valuable link between the fictional world of the story and the realities of our own 21st Century experience, with their blue hair, electric wheelchair and non-binary gender presentation.

This is important because, beyond the history of the 1930s, we know that people with various differences are still treated unequally in our society today. Lyrics of some of the songs bring this home too, as the cast sing ‘How you stare stare stare, for your fun fun fun’. There are also reminders that our current political situation is volatile, and we all have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right. The line ‘Every other week, another Chancellor‘ hits home because, although they are talking about 1930s Germany, British politics have been similarly unstable recently. It sounds like a warning for us not to accidentally follow the same path.

One of the themes that runs through the show is about bravery and fear. Often, audience members watching circus aerialists sense far more danger than the performers themselves feel. In other cases though, people from minority groups feel real danger before the mainstream notice it. I’m going to give a spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it. Perhaps one of the bravest things this production does, is in showing how a normal young person can end up taking a dark path that turns them into a fascist. Peter, played by Tilly Lee-Kronick, is the son of the circus owner, and desperately wants to be a performer. But he is not allowed, and the other members of the circus troupe tease him, until he becomes so unhappy he runs away to find somewhere he will be appreciated. Sadly, that somewhere is in the Nazi party. He’s so happy to fit in that he doesn’t notice how evil the party’s policies are. This is very resonant with the rise of the alt-right in society today, and its so important to recognise the humanity of those who join such groups, so that they can be demotivated instead of simply demonised. When I saw the show, it was only its third preview (meaning that some things were still being practised and fixed), and I felt a bit confused by Peter’s relationships in the first half of the show. I would have liked the bullying to be made clearer, and I wasn’t sure how young he was supposed to be so I initially read paternal care into trapeze artist Renée’s affections, rather than the romantic intentions that were insinuated later.

Johnny Leitch, who plays Renée, is a unique and talented aerialist, and one of the standout actors in the show. He also plays drums in the show band, which soundtracks many of the scenes with heavy, agitating beats and synthesiser chords. Queenie (Mirabelle Gremaud) has a particularly exciting song as she makes the decision to flee for her life. It’s in a musical style I’m not familiar with, but showcases evocatively emotive non-Western vocal flicks. It’s only now, reading the programme notes, that I realise the same excellent actress also played Margot, a circus-hating doctor who follows the Nazi line, visiting the troupe to perform medical interventions on those considered ‘useless’ or ‘undesirable’. A particularly unpleasant reminder of how history has treated those who seem different. We also get insights into the lived experiences of people who have been excluded or othered from society in the troubled romance of Krista (Abbie Purvis), who is a person of short stature, and Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle) who is non-disabled. When it looks like Gerhard will take Krista’s place as star of the show, it raises notions of privileged people appropriating space from others.

The old-fashioned theatrical opulence and cosy scale of the Old Vic theatre supports the magic created by Ti Green’s circus tent set. A blue canvas canopy with red stars stretches down to red tent walls at the back of the stage. A red velvet curtain, dimly lit and edged with soft amber bulbs, marks the public face of the circus amid bare wooden seating benches, the skeletons beneath the big top that the public rarely notice. This is a world where magic and reality are not separate. Historical fiction blends with contemporary truth. The simultaneous ordinary/extraordinary of magical realism seems to have been drawn directly from the circus universe.

The circus acts seen within the show are largely incidental, part of the character’s lives and environment rather than expressing any message in themselves. Contortion or handstand training in the background of another scene, for example, or Dora and Darragh (JoAnne Haines and Ryan Murphy) presenting a lovely little piece of comic hat juggling in the guise of an audition routine. Some exception to this is in the aerial work of Tilly Lee-Kronick as Peter. Her duet with long-term performance partner Johnny Leitch, on a static trapeze hung with a high bar and a low one to form a hanging rectangle, expresses Peter’s earnest desire to learn performance skills. Later, she performs in a bespoke aerial rectangle, evoking the freedom’s that Peter’s character feels he has found within the strictures and structures of the Nazi training regime. I also enjoyed noticing that the rope climbs practised by circus newcomer Gerhard are historically fitting. Circus historian and artist Stav Meishar has worked as a consultant and dramaturg on the production, and little details like this pay off to a circus fan. If you’re interested, they are also presenting a talk on ‘Circus Jews Under National Socialism‘ in conjunction with the show on 22nd March.

Many people might expect circus energy to be busy and fast-paced, but in this show we see the pedestrian, backstage reality version. The these-are-people’s-lives version. The slowed onstage pace is, perhaps, necessitated by the access and inclusion embedded in the show, but it has artistic merit too. I feel the inexorable encroachment of certain tragedy that lies ahead, brought into relief through the unwitting day-to-day lives of the characters. My own way of viewing the show also changes as it progresses. To begin with, I feel like there is a lot of space around the scripted action, but then I begin to look at the signing as I would dance or other artistic movement. I reframe my thinking from imagining it as ‘substitute words’ to realising it is its own artistic component of the show. The different communicative practices and the distance this produces from my normal experience of theatrical immersion reminds me of my A’Level days studying Bertolt Brecht’s ‘verfremdungstechnik‘. He created a style of theatre that used written captions, song, and other devices, to prevent the sort of absorption that suspends an audience’s critical capacities, in order to highlight political problems and inspire audiences to address their own behaviour. He was making theatre in the interwar period in Germany, so the combination of the show’s subject matter and the effect it produces seems highly appropriate. What’s more, it seems highly appropriate to revisit this style today, with rising divisions in society and increasing alt-right activity.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror shows integrated access tools and circus are a powerful combination to create entertaining and thought-provoking theatre. Theatre that activates its audiences to be alert to injustice, and inspires us to be brave in the pursuit of what’s right. There is something deliciously, righteously, vengeful in seeing disabled, queer and global majority performers playing the role of drunken Nazis. This moment, these people on stage, with the power to tell stories that matter – this is a celebration of hard won opportunity that must never be torn away. When Queenie ominously portends ‘None of you are safe’, the warning is not directed out front to our seats for no reason.

I don’t usually include explicit advertising links in my reviews, but part of the access mission of the show includes a useful request for journalists to use plain language and to write in inclusive ways. So, for those who want to know more, Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror by Extraordinary Bodies is at Bristol Old Vic and then on tour. For more information click this link:

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