Even before tonight’s show starts, there’s a sense there might be something potentially special in store. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve loved a theatre set, and made a mental note to check out the name of the designer, only to find – once again – it’s Ti Green. Another triumph here, with the big top and bleacher-style seats providing a perfect stage on which to tell this musical story – that of a group of (largely) deaf and disabled performers working in a circus in Germany during the rise of the third reich.
Given the countless retelling of fact-based stories involving nazis, it is sobering to recognise just how seldom their treatment of disabled people – every bit as horrific as their treatment of any other group, and in many cases even more so – is brought to our attention.
There is an almost Brechtian feel to some of the action, especially early on. At first, I thought the initially slow pacing might be for technical reasons – allowing the audience to follow the signing or captions, for example. This proved not to be the case, as the pacing varied throughout without any loss of clarity of the storytelling. I now suspect it was more to draw us into the world of Waldo’s Circus in an almost meditative way; if so, it certainly works.
As ring-master Waldo, Garry Robson commands our attention effortlessly from the off, and there’s something in his not-quite-rap delivery on ‘Ooplah’ that brings Ian Dury to mind, in a very good way. That he’s a largely sympathetic figure, despite not quite being the flawless hero we (and members of the troupe) might wish him to be, is a credit to both his acting, and Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard’s writing.
Alongside the writing and acting, the considerable Directorial skills of Billy Alwen, Claire Hodgson and Jenny Davies are on show throughout.
It is all too believable when his troubled relationship with son Peter (a very capable Tilly Lee-Kronick) propels the latter into the arms of the nazis, bringing the continuing survival of the circus – and all of its members – into very real jeopardy.
As Gerhard, Lawrence Swaddle presents us with a man who would be celebrated in the sick and twisted nazi ‘philosophy’ of racial and genetic superiority, but who is drawn both to the magic of the circus and to it’s star, Krista – albeit a star who lives in fear of being replaced. Abbie Purvis brings a pitch-perfect voice and a wonderful stage presence to this role, and in even a slightly weaker ensemble cast, the sweet romance between the pair might have stolen the show altogether.
As it is, there’s real strength in depth, and the ensemble impresses neither because of nor despite their deaf and disabled or non-disabled status, but because they are impressive people and performers in and of themselves.
Mirabelle Gremaud’s highly effective transformation between twin roles of acrobatic, clairvoyant circus performer Queenie and Dr. Margaret Kruger (Gerhard’s twin), isn’t due to the quick costume changes. Rather, she just seems to embody a completely different person – the fortune-telling of the former heightening the sense of impending doom, the latter being a Doctor who doesn’t so much abandon her Hippocratic Oath as blithely set fire to it in the fires of hell.
As aerialist Renée, Jonny Leitch has the skills and physique to make any other gymnast jealous, and is also an accomplished drummer; whilst Ryan Murphy as Darragh is an intriguing, Chaplinesque presence throughout.
Jack Reitman’s turn as rival circus owner Joseph, meanwhile, adds some of the first real signs of the dangers of the burgeoning nazi ideology, and shows us how easy it is for evil to triumph if good people do nothing.
Other characters are just as clearly drawn, and, despite the apparent simplicity of the opening storytelling style, each turns out to have satisfying layers of complexity – the ringmaster’s lies about the reason he uses a wheelchair, for example; or Peter’s repressed sexuality; or Krista’s realisation that it might be her own preconceptions that make her doubt the sincerity of her non-disabled beau.
Similarly, Dora – played by JoAnne Haines – starts as an apparent innocent (albeit an entertainingly impish one), but turns out to be not only ambitious, but also a canny negotiator with real potential as a circus performer.
The signed input of interpreter Max Marchewicz gels seamlessly with the action, not least as she herself has a luminous stage presence, having an aura with more than a hint of showbiz glamour.
Whilst initially, then, some of the spoken parts of the script seem relatively light, its subtle layers come into focus as the piece develops, with hints at darker forces at work, subtle touches of misdirection, and lies being revealed. In fact, the lightness of the writing turns out to reflect a lightness of touch that suits the piece well, and allows other aspects of the storytelling room to breathe.
I did find myself wishing the piece had more intensity here and there, especially before the interval; though, given the subject matter, that would have meant the show would only be suitable for an audience that was not just older, but also excluded those for whom a more relaxed performance is a must.
Even this is something I’m still reflecting on. I’ve previously mentally applauded the fact that an increasing number of shows now include at least a few relaxed performances in their run, but now I’m wondering if that simply means that people who need a more relaxed style simply aren’t welcome at most of the performances in question.
I’m not sure this quandary has a one-size-fits-all solution, though I can certainly appreciate the answer Extraordinary Bodies have come up with: every single performance of Waldo’s Circus is as inclusive for the audience as it is on stage.
It’s a philosophy that’s hard to fault.
The show, however, isn’t entirely flawless. Whilst the musicianship is effective, especially when providing a backdrop to the action, when it comes to the songs, the musical palate is, if not quite atonal or austere, at least on the dour side. This suits some numbers (Peter’s Song, for example); but I wouldn’t’ve minded something a bit more celebratory in places.
Then again, though there may not be many tunes you’re likely to find yourself whistling after the show, should there be, given the subject matter? This isn’t The Producers after all; I just feel the show might profit by borrowing a hint of the razzmatazz that shows like Cabaret dare to share.
Pretty much every musical I love has songs that extend the plot, or illustrate the passage of time; but my favourite numbers tend to be those where a character is so overwhelmed by emotion, and the music expressing this irresistibly bursts out of them as mere speech alone is not up to the job. Clearly, this can’t be the case in a relaxed performance; a fact that, for a while at least, left me feeling like something was missing.
The second half is stronger, in part because of the heightened ‘pressure cooker’ feeling arising from the increasing nazi threat; but also because, once I’d let go of some of my preconceptions, I realised there were different forms of intensity on display with just as much impact as any show-stopping musical numbers.
As twinned clowns Mish and Mosh, Raphaella Julien and Brooklyn Melvin at times communicate not only in sign language, but with the whole of their bodies, in a way that’s so eloquent, so captivating, I totally forgot to read the on-screen captions. Despite not (yet) understanding BSL, I don’t think I missed much; indeed, I would have missed much more if I’d focussed on reading the captions instead of watching them perform.
The later segment in which, through mime and sign language, a heartbreakingly solo Raphaella portrays the dreaded knocks on doors that announce the arrival of nazis coming to take people away is absolutely electric; so much so, I find myself wondering if this side of their storytelling might be very fertile ground for Extraordinary Bodies to excavate further in subsequent productions.
If you think of a Vamos mask play, for example, or a Matthew Bourne ballet (and yes, I know I’m setting the bar high), each tells a story with absolute clarity, without a word being spoken. There are elements of Waldo’s Circus that are likewise so perfectly theatrical, and encapsulated and embodied with such force and clarity, they’d work just as well as part of a silent film.
I’m not suggesting Extraordinary Bodies should abandon verbal text altogether; merely that, given their physical eloquence, they may well be able to use the non-verbal aspects of their storytelling to take their work to an even higher plane.
As it is, Extraordinary Bodies have not only done countless deaf and disabled people a great service in honouring their suffering with this story; they have also produced a piece of work that makes it absolutely clear how much more so many deaf and disabled people could achieve – whether that means excelling in something, or simply being allowed a chance of living more independently – if non-disabled society would only get out of their way.
Whilst Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror may not be perfect (is anything?), there’s much to celebrate, both in the here-and-now, and for what this show suggests we may see from this remarkable company in the future.
The question is – how do they get from where they are, to where they clearly could be, without losing some of their audience along the way? Goodwill alone won’t do it, so it’s a real challenge, and a significant one at that.
From what I’ve seen, I have a strong feeling it’s a challenge Extraordinary Bodies may well rise to. Theatre will be immeasurably richer for it if – and when – they do.
In the meantime, try to get to this show. If you’re willing to let it weave its magic in its own way, you’re in for a treat.