It’s 10pm at Underbelly’s Circus Hub, and the audience are primed for a sassy show after huddling together in the windy outside bar, before filing into the sold-out big top. Head First Acrobats – Thomas Gorham, Cal Harris and Rowan Thomas – provide just what is needed as they bamboozle viewers with a show tightly packed with silly, sexy and strangely sensuous content. Their individual specialist skills are woven into a loose narrative about a drug experimentation, in which taking a brightly coloured elixir under the instruction of a higher being (their voice booming down over the soundtrack) transforms their bodies in and out of something superhuman. The three characters alternate between wearing white lab coats and following the instructions of the giant organisation, testing the effect of the different potions on each other.
The narrative is simple enough to embellish with joke after joke, and is attacked with a knowingness and awareness of cliché that allows the trio to own their storyline. Their expressive use of clowning – with Rowan Thomas as the butt of the jokes – warms the excitable viewers who marvel at the mix of spectacle and comedy, delivered in equal measures: only these cheeky boys can get away with prancing to the Bee Gees wearing stockings and suspenders, and to Michael Jackson’s Thriller as half-baked zombies, without falling foul of trite references.
The show takes off when the men are instructed to drink the blue elixir from the ominous test tubes laid out on a laboratory table. Thomas manages to spit his out, whilst the muscular Gorham and Harris swallow their potions ready to be transformed in turn. As they find their strength, or embody zombie-like tendencies, their craft and skill on the ladder, trapeze and balance canes take precedence, with one-armed freezes, handstands and all kinds of shapes and compositions in acrobalance emerging.
Moments of true craftsmanship are where the physical performance skills are adapted and developed to continue the narrative, rather than provide a break within it. Gorham’s breakdancing sequence uses inverted floorwork, where the head is predominantly close to or in contact with the floor, threading and windmilling to embody a human in transformation, albeit into a zombie who is trying to find his first steps again, thrown off-balance by his mounting strength. Thomas uses a Cyr wheel in his transformation from a blundering weakling into the exemplary Vitruvian man. He scampers in circles as the spinning hoop chases him round; he manages to be carried by it and thrown off by it. He almost invisibly actions the momentum that allows the wheel to call the shots as he grabs hold and falls off. In this fast-paced ducking and diving in and out, on and off of the wheel Thomas manages to gesture and joke to the audience, maintaining his character play. The momentum feels like a drunken pas de deux between human and hoop, with a heavy undulating flow. When the beat drops, our jaws drop as the tempo, dynamic and rhythm change in an instant. Thomas rotates inside the Cyr wheel at top speed, thrown through and round with a sharp, jerking momentum full of energy, power and control. In this sudden flood of flashing and oscillating shapes, split-second gestures and facial expressions highlight his now dominating control over the hoop, continuing the narrative whilst preventing the fast-moving image from becoming a blur.
Head First Acrobats find the fun in every element of the piece, taking it one step further without over-playing it. Spitting out beer all over the floor, to creating beer fountains, to spraying it into each other’s mouths and potentially to an audience member who has already become the victim of Thomas’s hugs, ball games and sexual innuendos is just one example of many sketches that string the skills and humour together.
The show is predominantly front-facing and the performers’ expressive eye contact and emotive faces do not reach side audiences to their fullest effect. As they teeter upon the ridiculous on their teeterboard dressed in lingerie, the late showing allows for an inebriated audience to enjoy sexual references and innuendos, the crowd getting stuck into the sheer entertainment that Elixir’s bromance and sex appeal has to offer.