Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous – Circus at Ed Fringe 2023

Sacred spaces, peepshows, spooky ghost hunts and duels – all circus life is here at the Edinburgh Fringe 2023

There is circus, and there is circus…  And the Edinburgh Fringe 2023 brings us the full spectrum, from circus-cabaret shows presented at all hours of the day and night, to full-blown extravaganzas from the world’s top companies, such as Australia’s Circa and Les 7 Doigts de la Main from Quebec. Both of these can be found at Underbelly’s Circus Hub on The Meadows, where their two venues, a big top and a Spiegeltent, run shows from 11 in the morning till 11 at night – most full to capacity, from what I saw. 

Then, there are the shows that use circus skills, but are something else altogether. Summerhall has a fair few of these, including Laura Murphy’s A Spectacle of Herself, integrating aerial rope with live art, lip synch, video and autobiographical confession; and Insomniac’s Fable, part of the FIN showcase of Finnish work, bringing together classical ballet and juggling (both of these reviewed elsewhere on this website). 

There’s also Assembly’s big circus-dance presentation for 2023, IMA, which takes its audience into a specially-created visual installation.

Recirquel: IMA

So let’s start with IMA (Prayer), presented by Hungarian company Recirquel, who previously brought My Land to the Fringe (2018). This time round, Recirquel director-choreographer Bence Vági has worked with his team to create a magical performance-installation within Murrayfield Ice Rink. Like the previous show, IMA is a visually stunning and physically impressive piece, but this time a solo work rather than an ensemble piece – although the six-strong ensemble are here, each taking a turn at performing this intensive 40-minute aerial piece which plays numerous times each day. 

As we enter the (ice-free) rink we are given a voile ribbon to add to a fence full of wishes, and then led down a tunnel into a dark dome, where we are sat on bean bags or stools. Looking up and around, every inch of the black space is sparkling with white lights, like stars in a night sky stretching to infinity, reminding us that we are merely tiny points in the infinite vastness of the universe. A lone figure stands in a beam of light, draped in a transparent white veil. The androgynous figure moves with great care and precision, stretches, reaches to the sky above and the ground below, seemingly enacting a personal ritual in a sacred space. The veil is slowly pulled away and the figure, dressed in a neutral-coloured body suit and appearing naked but sexless, reaches up to take hold of a set of looped straps. Lit by a dizzying and dazzling cross-hatch pattern of white laser beams, the figure is propelled up higher and higher to the dome’s ceiling. There follows a flawlessly enacted aerial routine, mixing extraordinarily slow moves that lead to points of stillness – for example, as the performer, in a neck hang, slowly stretches out into a five-point star shape that makes me think of William Blake’s Albion Rose painting, or curls in to a foetal position, or holds a box-split without a tremor for an excruciatingly long time – which contrast with breathtakingly fast twists and turns and jolts and drops, as the composed soundscape moves from ambient to symphonic. Everyman or angel? Either or both. A beautiful experience.

Party Ghost

From the sublime to the ridiculous – and nothing wrong with that. There’s room for both in the circus world. Party Ghost, an Adelaide Festival Best Circus award winner, also presented by Assembly but this time at their central Checkpoint venue, is a cheery exploration of all things macabre, enacted by a pair of terrible twins (Olivia Porter and Jarred Dewey) and directed by Nicci Welks. It has the feel of a late-night Spiegeltent show – although presented mid-afternoon, but that’s Edinburgh Fringe for you. The premise is an afterlife ‘deathday’ party. The performers, swapping outfits and negitiating copious numbers of props throughout, work their frilly little ankle socks off, sibling rivalry played out to the death (and beyond). The terrible twosome are supplemented by an extra person – a stage manager cum performer who joins them in a three-way ghost dance, or takes the props on or off stage dressed in a black widow’s veil – so the impression is somehow of an ensemble, rather then a duet. They use the space well: stage, aisles, auditorium and (slamming) venue door are all put to use in a breathless dash through every horror movie cliche you can imagine.

Highlights include a cleverly comic trapeze act (right near the beginning, which feels a little oddly placed) with the dragged-up Jarred Dewey making a great Morticia Addams; some excellent slapstick as the ‘twins’ scrap over a small table and chair, kicking and wrestling, the tablecloth transforming them into cartoon ghosts; a good acro/hand-to-hand sequence dressed in identical white outfits, in which we see that their talents are very evenly matched; and a juggling act by Olivia Porter to the tune of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Spooky’ that is pleasingly precise in its musicality. Music throughout is chosen well – good to hear the Bee Gees ‘Where is the Sun that Shone on my Head’ – it is dead, it is dead… The violin screech from Psycho is a returning sound motif, cueing frantic racing about to a strobe effect. We also have a soundbite of Vincent Price telling us how to see a ghost – walk around a grave twelve times, backwards, apparently; and we get to sing ‘Happy Deathday to You’ and play ‘Pass Away the Parcel’. If the dead can dance, then here they are – dancing to the end of time. A rip-roaring success.

Aloft presents Sanctuary

And now, from a themed cabaret show to regular cabaret: Aloft’s Sanctuary, which is an odd one. It is a straightforward Spiegeltent circus cabaret show – presented at Circus Hub in The Beauty – no themes, or interconnecting motifs, just a compere, a live three-piece band and a series of good quality acts – but what is odd is that it is marketing itself as ‘an underground circus-cabaret with a punk rock soul’. Really? I don’t think so. It is also odd that the compere (who also happens to be Aloft’s artistic director Shayna Swanson) introduces the show as something different from the usual in its lack of theme and focus on the acts existing just for their own sakes – which is really not that extraordinary, surely? Isn’t this the essence of the circus tradition? That aside, there are numerous strong acts from women artists, including a tightrope walker who explores the relationship between wire, air and ground skilfully; a great suspended pole act to a live rendition of ‘The Killing Moon’; a good hoop act that integrates hoop balancing with hula-hooping; and (inevitably) a decent silks act. There’s a token male who multi-tasks, playing in the band, performing diabolo, and (most interestingly) combining performance poetry/live literature soundbites about blackbirds with juggling. Personally, I could have done without the compere’s tasteless jokes about wetting yourself rather than missing an act to go to the bathroom, and the very tame lion-tamer skit. But overall, a pretty good show. And to mention that Aloft (all the way from Chicago) are also here with the returning Brave Space – a brilliant show which I saw last year, and highly recommend.

Revel Puck Circus: The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – a celebration of fear

Still at Circus Hub, but over in their big top venue Lafayette, come UK troupe The Revel Puck Circus with The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – A celebration of fear. First to say that it’s great to see a new young British company playing to a full house here at the home of circus at the Edinburgh Fringe. They are a robust bunch giving it their all in a straightforward no-nonsense manner, performers dressed down (for the most part) in cheery colourful shirts and trews – not a sequin in sight, and no binary divisions of male and female, although we do get a boy juggler in a blue lycra leotard challenging gender expectations. They bounce on and off stage, a loud soundtrack of well-known tunes (Carmina Burana, Girl from Ipanema, Zorba the Greek, Dock of the Bay) interspersed with some cheery housey-dancey stuff bolstering up the physical action. 

There’s a very lovely Pierrot clown playing out an ongoing gag of being chased by a lion, which progresses nicely from the opening skit that sees her dodging a small remote control toy to the final moment hugging someone in a full-body lion outfit, via numerous other lion puppets or toys of various sizes. She runs and tumbles and rides a rola-bola with gentle ease. This last links us nicely to a giant rola-bola – a seesaw made from a big tyre and a massive plank of wood, giving us a neat ensemble balancing number. There’s a girl with a Cyr wheel, still not that common a sight, and a chainsaw ducking scene perhaps inspired by Archaos (although none of this lot would be old enough to have seen them!). The crowd-pleasing final act is a cloudswing, accompanied by live singing and playing – a nice touch, although they are not the best musicians in the world so it feels slightly low-key. They get a rousing reception, and seem happy and relieved to have got this far. One to watch!

So, also in the Lafayette, it’s time for the big names. 

Circa’s Peepshow (Club Remix)

Circa first – Australia’s finest. Circa’s Peepshow (Club Remix) ‘turns cabaret on its head, literally.’ And yes – we get what it says on the tin: ‘teetering towers of balanced bodies, extreme bending and devilishly precarious aerials’. After last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show Humans, which focuses on pure acrobatic ability played out in a very simple setting, Peepshow comes with more baggage – literally and metaphorically. There’s a big Peepshow sign suspended above the stage, a DJ station, sparkly cabaret curtains to the rear, and floor-lights lining three sides of the square space. There’s also an homage to burlesque tropes in the costumes: the team wearing see-through voile bodysuits with sequinned shorts in an assortment of colours – ruby reds and rusty oranges, royal blues and dove greys – later donning fake fur jackets. As for the skills on display, we get a fabulous silks act bursting with male energy, boasting neck hangs and jerky drops syncopated beautifully to the music; a great hand-balancing number that emerges from a deceptive scene of audience interaction; clever brick juggling, a sensuous and sassy hoop act; and numerous fabulous moments of acro-balance and hand-to-hand – those famous human towers emerging and falling with consummate ease, walks across hands and heads, and breathtaking ‘human skipping rope’ swings and passes. 

Then, there’s the infamous ‘girl in the red high heels’ number, revisited. A man lies on his front. A woman walks across his back wearing the highest of stiletto heels. He then, somehow, moves into a bridge then turns and together they rise up, so the man is now standing with the woman, still in those heels, on his shoulders. She then goes on to perform an aerial straps act still wearing the heels. I remember that when Circa first brought this ‘red shoes’ act to the Edinburgh Fringe there was much debate around the sexual politics: Was it conveying male-female relationships in an unfavourable light? Promoting sadomasochism? Using clichéd porn-inspired imagery, and presenting women (and their shoes!) as fetishised objects? I never felt that way, and thankfully, more people now agree – we’ve moved on to a time when it is acknowledged that ‘performing the femme’ is a choice, not an oppression; that whatever happens between consenting adults is fine; and that dragging up in heels is completely OK for people of any gender. Over the past decade or so, high heels in circus have become something of a thing… Good to see the original and the best.

As for the music in the show: it is, to be honest, hard to tell how much re-mixing is being done live by the DJ. I presume that tracks need to stay more-or-less the same from one show to the next, for the sake of cues and timing – so there’s perhaps a limit to the DJ’s freedom to improvise. But it all sounds good! The music is (as always in Circa’s shows) well chosen, and choreographed to with care – the comic ode-to-striptease played out to Louis Prima’s ‘Just a Gigolo’ is excellent. The remixed ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’ is a memorable moment. 

Peepshow celebrates and subverts the mores and tropes of cabaret and burlesque delightfully, its tricks and turns both ‘homage to’ and ‘unpacking of’ those forms. The show has thrills a-plenty, but is also bubbling with tongue-in-cheek humour – the many uses of the long red evening gloves is a particular highlight – and the acts are worked into the overall picture as skilfully as ever by director Yaron Lifschitz. Peepshow uses cabaret as a point of reference, but it is more than the sum of its parts. Another grand success for Circa!

Les 7 Doigts de la Main: Duel Reality

And so finally to Montreal company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (aka The 7 Fingers), who bring Duel Reality to this year’s Fringe. Although not advertised as such, it’s a reworking of Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story most definitely a point of reference. Montagues and Capulets (or Jets and Sharks) are here replaced by Reds and Blues. As we enter, we are each given a coloured wristband, and asked to sit in the relevant section of the auditorium. 

The action starts within the audience, spilling onto the stage area which is marked out as a sports court with white lines, a pair of Chinese poles standing in parallel in the centre. Round one: ding ding. The rebel-rousing start gives way to a fabulous poles duel between a Reds woman and a Blues man, aided and abetted by their teammates. More jousting: the next round gives us a Red team man juggling with balls and a Blue team woman with clubs, with lots of clever interplay between them. Then, another very different pairing: the star-crossed lovers meet with a gentle hand-to-hand/acro duet, morphing into the masked ball scene (where they realise they are from different ‘houses’) which is played out in harlequin masks using hula hoops – the usual spinning and twirling but evolving into some fabulous ensemble work, with breathtaking dives through the hoops and tumbling, all set to a rip-roaring electro-swing number. There’s a diabolo act to the tune of ‘Red is not my colour, Blue is not my colour’ – and the mood starts to shift. The lovers find themselves in a duet (but apart) in an aerial act using suspended chains. The climax of the battle between Reds and Blues is a fabulous fight to the death on the teeterboard. There is resolution – and it’s a different one to Shakespeare’s! 

One slight reservation is the use of spoken text here and there – it’s not needed, and Shakespeare spoken by non-actors with strong Quebecois accents just doesn’t work well. I know Les 7 Doigts have pioneered the use of spoken text in contemporary circus, from Traces onwards, but perhaps pre-recording text and integrating it into the soundscape would work better in this case? But this is a small quibble – it is otherwise a wonderful show, beautifully choreographed, amazing circus skills, great pacing. 

It’s my final show at Circus Hub after a full day seeing the best of contemporary circus from across the world. Chapeau!

Party Ghost

Featured image (top of page): Circa’s Peepshow (Club Remix).

Recirquel: IMA, Assembly at Murrayfield Ice Rink was seen 7 August 2023.

Double Take/Cluster Arts: Party Ghost at Assembly Checkpoint, seen 7 August 2023

Aloft: Sanctuary, seen The Beauty (Spiegeltent) at Circus Hub, seen 8 August 2023 

The Revel Puck Circus: The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – A celebration of fear; Circa’ s Peepshow (club remix): Les 7 Doigts: Duel Reality were all seen at Lafayette (Big Top) at Circus Hub on 8 August 2023.

The Edinburgh Fringe 2023 runs 5–26 August.

For further details, dates and times, and tickets for all of the above shows see


It’s a Wonderful Life – Ed Fringe 2023

‘Once upon a time there were people between birth and death. We are those people. We are here, and we have come together to remember and forget.’

Thus starts Funeral, the latest work by Flemish masters Ontroerend Goed to arrive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The multi-award-winning company have shocked, surprised and enchanted audiences for the past two decades with a series of radically different shows, and Funeral adds another notch to their belt of successes.

The show, which like all of the Big in Belgium programme is presented at Zoo Southside, takes the form of a secular rite of passage ceremony, with geranium-scented hand towels, candles, spirals of petal confetti, and a number of ‘celebrants’ guiding us and leading off with a succession of litanies and small rituals. There are echoes of Welfare State International’s Dead Good Guides, and Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy of marking key moments in life through ritual. These ideas, very current in contemporary counter-culture, have been taken and woven skilfully into an immersive theatrical experience. Much of the spoken text takes the form of lists. There’s a beautiful call and response on the markers of those absent: the smell of Elnett hairspray, her yellow jacket with the broken zip, his blue eyes shining through his spectacles, her stale cheese biscuits in that old tin. A box of possessions is unpacked and listed: a Polaroid camera, some glucose tablets, a toy diplodocus. Everything is an event, not a thing, we are told. That sneeze, that explosion, that relationship. Yes, but even that stone. It might take a long time, but one day it will be dust. We too are an ‘event’ on this earth. We are finite. All is finite.

The piece is written, designed, directed and enacted with a wonderful care and attention to detail. We are engaged in the process – walking the spiral, singing in Esperanto (a touch of genius), and adding the names of our own dearly departed into the mix. But we are always held. We are here, remembering and forgetting in communion. 

Ontroerend Goed: Funeral

Also part of the Big in Belgium programme, and also addressing matters of life and death – albeit in a very different way – is SKaGeN’s The Van Paemel Family, a highly inventive reworking of a classic Flemish play (by Cyriel Buysse). Set in 1903, in brings us a Belgium divided by class and language, depicting a fierce social struggle for workers’ rights played out through the personal struggles of the Van Paemels, an impoverished farming family exploited by the landed gentry they work for. There is an enormous cast of characters, but only one live actor – the brilliant Valentijn Dhaenens, seen previously in BigmoutH and SmallWar. A screen shaped like a simple drawing of a house brings us the family, a portrait projected onto that screen like a classic Flemish painting – father, mother, a number of adult children (one playing the accordion), and the odd stray cockerel – and Dhaenens starts the show in his first live incarnation as errant son Edward, who joins the socialist workers fighting in the streets, much to the shame of his father. He later embodies the French-speaking Baroness with equal skill – her disgust at the smell of the farm and the noise of the animals is brilliant. Finally he becomes Father, whose misplaced loyalty to his bosses, despair at his poverty, and anger at his children (who variously desert the army, flee to America, get jailed for joining the socialist uprising, and have a child out of wedlock when raped by the Baron’s son) is played out perfectly.  

The relationship between live action and onscreen moving image is worked skilfully, and shifts in scale in the projected video are used to great effect to enhance the power dynamics of the characters. When Mother is seriously ill, she is an enormous figure on screen, her family sitting around the hills of her body like Lilliputians. When the soldiers arrive, their faces loom large, an intimidating presence. 

In our own era of class struggles and dilemmas around fighting poverty and exploitation, it is good to be reminded of the struggles of the past, and to see the relevance to our life and times. Our current dilemmas might manifest in different ways, yet at their heart is the same issue. Too few own too much and exploit too many. SKaGeN show us also that political and socially conscious theatre doesn’t have to take a naturalist form – the physical and visual tricks of the trade of a ‘total theatre’ can be successfully used to tell difficult stories, as witnessed here.

SKaGeN: / Valentijn Dhaenens The Van Paemel Family

This is also very much the case for JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, brought to Assembly Hall by the South African Baxter Theatre Centre, in collaboration with puppet masters Handspring Puppet Company. The show is written and directed by Lara Foot, with puppetry design and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring.  

Coetzee’s 1983 novel brings us the story of Michael K, a poor ‘coloured’ man, born with a cleft lip, who has spent his childhood in institutions, and as an adult works as a gardener in Cape Town, also caring for his mother Anna, who works as a domestic servant. As the country descends into civil war and martial law is imposed, Michael’s mother becomes ill. Michael decides to quit his job and escape the city to return his mother to her birthplace, which she says was on a farm Prince Albert. Thus, the hero’s journey from Cape Town to countryside (and back again) begins… 

The story is brought to life brilliantly in this production, with an ensemble of nine actors and actor-puppeteers moving effortlessly from verbal storytelling to puppet manipulation to physical action, swapping roles and demonstrating a high level of skill in all fields. Of course, the puppets are wonderful – this is Handspring, after all, famous for their creation of the War Horse puppets, and of the magnificent Little Amal, a giant puppet of a child refugee who has been walking the world for the past year or so. They are manipulated using the traditional three-person Bunraku inspired method, and there are many moments of playfulness where the puppeteers’ presence is acknowledged, such as a lovely sharing of food scene. The live action is augmented by a clever set, lighting and sound design, and a great use of projection, depicting the cityscapes and urban landscapes of South Africa that our hero passes through.

The horrors of Apartheid – the segregation, the abuse, the demands for permits to travel anywhere at all – is brought to us clearly, neither over-dramatised not shied away from, just presented for us to witness. The horrors of a war-torn South Africa in the 1960s and 70s – the abusive soldiers, the theft of what little savings a poor old woman might have, the mindless destruction of water pumps and crops, the work camps, the railroad chain-gangs – pile up, one after the other. 

But we do not sink into a mire of despair. There is hope, and there is humour. The hope comes in Michael’s relationship with the land – these seeds will grow long after I am gone, muses our gardener-hero – the love of the land and its ability to regenerate being the key signifier of hope in this adaptation. The humour is there throughout. The building of a cart to carry Michael’s mother Anna across country, cobbled together from an old tin bath and bicycle wheels, is great – and Anna is a great comic character, squealing and moaning and teasing her only son. Even in the darkest moments, touches of humour alleviate the pain and the horror. 

As is the case with Little Amal, the puppet Michael K arouses enormous feelings of empathy and love in the human spectator – puppets have this extraordinary ability. And as with SKAGEN’s The Van Paemel Family, here is a clear demonstration that naturalistic theatre is not the only, or even the first, choice for successfully bringing work with a strong political and social message to audiences.

All human life – and death, an intrinsic part of life – is here to behold in these three very different Edinburgh Fringe 2023 shows.

Baxter Theatre/ Handspring: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Featured image (top): Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Ontroerend Goed: Funeral, and SKaGeN/ Valentin Dhaenens: The Van Paemel Family were both seen at Zoo Southside on 8 August 2023, as part of the Big in Belgium programme.

Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K was seen at Assembly Hall, 7 August 2023.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs 4–28 August 2023. See 

LIMF 2023: As One Door Closes…

We’re entering the final week of the last ever London International Mime Festival, which is bowing out with a bang. Dorothy Max Prior reflects on work seen to-date

January in London: cold, damp, miserable – same as it ever was. But January 2023 is extra miserable because added to the predictably dismal weather and usual midwinter gloominess we have post-pandemic ennui, post-Brexit chaos, continuing government lunacy, endless train and postal and NHS strikes, and more. Just don’t mention the war.

But there is a glimmer of light in the darkness – the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) is back, on full throttle, with fifteen productions (including eight international works) presented in eight different London venues.

So a buzz is in the air, but with this buzz comes the bittersweet knowledge that this year, its 47th year, will be the final edition of the Festival in its present form. Once it’s done and dusted, LIMF directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig plan to continue working together to promote and support physical and visual theatre, in ways yet to be announced. But what they won’t be doing is programming a month-long festival every January…

Not Standing: Through the Grapevine

This year’s Festival kicked off on 16 January at The Place with the traditional launch gathering around a chocolate fountain, followed by the opening show by Alexander Vantournhout’s Not Standing, one of a number of Belgian companies in the 2023 programme. Through the Grapevine is Vantournhout’s third collaboration with fellow circus-dance artist Axel Guerin, a pas de deux in which these two exceptional physical performers play with their physical differences. And like most of LIMF shows, this one is playing to a full house. 

On a sparse stage with simple lighting and no music, dressed minimally in sports shorts, bare-chested, the two bodies encounter each other. They measure up to the other, and they measure themselves in relation to the space, engaging with floor and walls in numerous novel ways. Just how many man-lengths are there to this dancefloor? Holding someone ‘at arm’s length’ takes on a new meaning as there is comic play on the difference in limb length between these two human specimens. The contact between them moves from cautious touches and twists, to grapples and shoves, to a full-on engagement that veers from contact improvisation to all-in wrestling, via capoeira. There is something Olympian about it all. The movement vocabulary shifts again, to full-on acrobalance poses, body supporting body in convoluted and often unexpected ways. A head balance prompts spontaneous audience applause. At around about the halfway mark, the sound of intense drumming kicks in, morphing into an ambient electronic soundscape. The sound of the recorded music is quite a shock after so long without it. Through the Grapevine is a virtuosic display of acrobatic skills. There is no doubting the talent on display here, and there’s novelty and humour a-plenty – but it’s my head rather than my heart that is impressed.  

Gandini Juggling: The Games We Play

I’m back at The Place later in the week to see Gandini Juggling. And this time my heart is completely won over, right from the start. The Games We Play is  a lecture-demonstration created especially for LIMF by company founder-directors Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala. These two have been playing games together for 30 years – they have a repertoire of around thirty productions staged more than six thousand times all over the world, indoors and out. Some of their work – such as the wonderful Smashed and its sequel, Smashed 2 – is created for a large ensemble of jugglers. Some, like 4×4: Ephemeral Architectures, pairs jugglers and dancers. But the core of the company has always been the personal and professional relationship of Sean and Kati, who bonded when working together in Ra Ra Zoo, and together formed Gandini Juggling in 1991. The Games We Play is a complete joy – and as with many earlier shows, brings Sean Gandini’s fascination with maths and magic together with Kati Ylä-Hokkala’s knowledge of and interest in rhythm and choreographic patterns. And of course both are top-notch jugglers.

We start in regular lecture-demonstration mode as we are given a breathless run-through of the juggling basics: the numbers and patterns and terminology. The three-ball basic up to four and five, in colourful cascades and fountains galore; then, they take us down from three to two to one to zero. Analogies are drawn to modern art as the patterns evolve: this one here is a Hockney, that one there a Rothko, and this final big explosion a Jackson Pollock. Sean lectures and Kati demonstrates. When we get to zero, Sean quips that this might be what most people would assume the mime festival to be: a lone Finnish woman onstage juggling invisible balls. 

Then, Sean demonstrates, and Kati disrupts – dragging chairs across the stage, tipping the neatly arranged lines of red and green and pink and orange balls off the trestle table so that they run amok across the floor. Sean shares fascinating historical moments. We learn of Lola the juggling pig and her golden thimbles, and all about the legendary Oklahoma Tunnel Shuffle. There’s a harrowing story of Russian Roulette, set in a prison, when a man with renowned billiard ball juggling skills is told that if he drops a ball, his wife gets shot. And, says Sean, eventually everyone drops a ball, no matter how good they are…  There are also word-free sections of pure blissful physical interaction between the two: a gorgeous classic Gandini dance and juggling section, featuring German tangos and French waltzes; and a lovely percussive game of taps and ball-grabs on a tabletop. There’s even a vaudevillian duet, because every Gandini show needs one; a gratuitous lighting change (ditto); and a moment of partial nudity, to discourage the children coming to the show – a tongue-in-cheek reminder that circus can and should also be adult entertainment. The Games We Play is a true delight to witness. May the Gandinis continue to thrive for many more decades. 

David Glass Ensemble w/ Topi Dalmata: The Brides

Over at Jacksons Lane: another veteran company returning to the Festival are the David Glass Ensemble, here in collaboration with Topi Dalmata  from Italy, bringing together an international cast of performers for the UK premiere of The Brides which cites as its influences Pina Bausch, Mamma Mia, the Marx Brothers, Garcia Lorca and Frida Kahlo. It is directed by David Glass and co-created with Margherita Fusi and Silvia Bruni. 

In the opening scene, a sinister mother figure shrouded in black (the Death Bride) activates seven ‘cocoons’ – plastic body bags cum costume bags lying on the ground. Each gives up its contents and here we are – seven young women together with seven bridal dresses, tugged on gleefully or reluctantly or with curiosity. Already we see before us seven strong personalities – no blank slates, no homogenous bodies. Each presents herself to us in all her individual glory, now dressed in her bridal finery, this then disrupted in the most marvellous way. The Brides is billed as a riotous celebration of female misbehaviour, and it delivers. Our ensemble of grrrrls gurn and tweak and stomp and howl and bite and twist and shout to a fabulous soundtrack that ricochets from ‘Love Hurts’ to ‘Real Nitty Gritty’; taking in Elvis Presley’s ‘Crying’, Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Boots’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ along the way. There’s a truly wonderful piss-take – sorry, homage to – Bausch’s choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, all demonic shaking and hair tossing. 

But there are gentle moments and dark moments, too, as we move through a cycle of birth, death and resurrection. The relationship between the Death Bride and the Brides sometimes evoke The House of Bernarda Alba. The Velvets’ ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ is a recurring motif, delivered by the women standing on chairs or sitting on the floor, gently singing the song whilst wearing blood-red blindfolds across their eyes. This is good, old fashioned (in the best sense of that term) physical theatre: strong but simple staging; inventive lighting; and basic props such as lengths of material, chairs and twigs used to great effect. And of course, it is the strength of the ensemble of eight great performers that wins the day. Bravo, Brides!  

Andrea Salustri: Materia

Also at Jacksons Lane: Materia, performed by Andrea Salustri (Italy/Germany) – which I didn’t catch in London, but saw previously at the Edinburgh Fringe 2022. 

To quote my Edinburgh review: Materia is as much a demonstration of practical physics and engineering skills as an art show – although all is done with the utmost artfulness. A calm and serious looking young man kneels onstage, leaning over an electric fan which has been placed on its side. He feeds polystyrene balls into the wind current created by the fan and they move around in a circle, jostle each other, and eventually (for some, anyway) get edged out and on to the floor. He steps away, and over to a sheet of polystyrene, which is stacked between two fans which counterbalance each other and keep it upright. This is just the start. Later, there are all sorts of complicated games involving carved or shredded polystyrene, multiple electric fans, and a monochrome lighting plan that plays with the extremities of light and dark, as shadows are cast and strobes highlight the mechanised action. What starts as a straight forward ‘human manipulates object’ scenario evolves into a situation where the objects seem to be calling the shots. Creativity and destruction are balanced out – and there’s plenty of gentle humour too, as we (inevitably) anthropomorphise these polystyrene constructions and create narratives of our own. Here, a mechanical creature asserting its right to survive; there, a tide ebbing and flowing. The final stage picture gives us a grouping of around six automata all firing on full cylinders, accompanied by a great ‘industrial’ soundtrack. It is a truly novel example of brilliant object theatre.

Thick & Tight: Tits and Teeth: A Retrospective of a Dazzling Career

At Shoreditch Town Hall, leading UK visual theatre company Theatre Re returned with The Nature of Forgetting, a LIMF co-commission that was developed with neuroscience professor Kate Jeffery and the Alzheimer’s Society, and performed around the world since its premiere at the Festival in 2017. At the same venue, Thick & Tight (also from the UK) returned to LIMF for the fifth year in succession with Tits and Teeth: A Retrospective of a Dazzling Career, a collection of best bits from their back catalogue. Some all- time favourites return to the stage including the hilarious bouffon encounter between Miss Havisham and Queen Victoria, described thus by Lisa Wolfe in her review at Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre: ‘… a modernist ballet, Queen Have and Miss Haven’t, pitches Queen Victoria against Miss Havisham in a mourning battle… Hair wrenching and breast beating their way through complex choreography that is full of gesture and expression, they compete for the misery prize. Whose loss is greatest, the young widow or the jilted bride? Lit with a rich colour palette that makes great use of shadows, it’s a thrilling ride.’

Told By An Idiot: Charlie and Stan

Told by an Idiot are another returning company, back at Wilton’s Music Hall with Charlie and Stan (previously called The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel). Director Paul Hunterimagines a relationship between Chaplin and Laurel that almost certainly didn’t exist; a ‘comically unreliable’ tribute to these two greats of physical comedy. It could be said that in the retelling of known facts, the re-imagining of the relationship, and the speculation on events that might (in a parallel universe) have occurred, Hunter is inventing the truth. Fabulous physical theatre, and good to see it return toWilton’s, which is such a gorgeous setting, and perfect for this piece.

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Famous Puppet Death Scenes

From the depths of the Canadian wilderness The Old Trout Puppet Workshop bring Famous Puppet Death Scenes to The Pit, Barbican. Matt Rudkin described it thus in his review: ‘The central concept, as introduced by an older host (puppet) character, is that by showing us [death] we will be better prepared to face our own mortality. There follow very many scenes featuring the deaths of puppets…  The set is impressive: an Art Deco styled construction featuring a central, curtained puppet booth and two smaller booths at each side. Each scene is so varied in style and staging that it is impossible to get bored, and as the show proceeds we get some breathtakingly beautiful and haunting scenes. The soundtrack is artfully chosen to enhance the different moods, and the visual trickery is at times quite extraordinary, and will make you want to rush backstage and see how’s it’s done. It’s all so inventive and exquisitely realised – kind of like the Muppets meets Monty Python meets Tadeusz Kantor.’

Still Life: Flesh

Still Life, rising star of Belgium’s contemporary theatre scene made their UK debut with Flesh, a ‘playful, disruptive drama about our need for affection and recognition’ that played to great acclaim at the Avignon Festival 2022 (read Total Theatre’s previewhere). The show comprises four vignettes. Each of the four pieces, in one way or another, deal with death or transformation of the human body. The first piece investigates the dying body; the second is about modifying the body through plastic surgery; the third investigates the dissociation between body and mind, as played out through a VR experience; and the fourth piece explores re-connecting where there has been disconnection. Each of the four pieces takes one key scenario and works through it with a meticulous care for detail. The central idea is the driver. For example, in the final piece, the question is: what if we place four warring siblings in a room with their mother’s ashes?

Still Life’s work is often described as ‘visceral’. In Flesh, we are not encountering surreal, ambivalent landscapes – the company create tangible environments, peopled by very real and present physical bodies, and then add a twist to the tale. It is the juxtaposing of seeming opposites – the terrible and the funny, the real and the imitation, the present and the absent – that is at the heart of the company’s work, and what makes it such a great success. 

Mossoux-Bonté: The Great He-Goat.

More to come… 

LIMF shows still to come at the time of writing (27 January 2023): at The Place, Belgium’s Mossoux-Bonté presents the UK premiere of The Great He-Goat. Inspired by the famous Pinturas Negras of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, Mossoux-Bonté has created a powerful, award-winning work for eleven dancers and their life-size puppet doubles, bringing a museum at night to life. 

At the Barbican Pit, Dorothy James & Andy Manjuck (USA) present the UK premiere of Bill’s 44th, a puppet tragi-comedy for grown-ups.

In the Barbican Theatre Belgium’s Olivier Award-winning dance-theatre innovators Peeping Tom present the UK premiere of their new and most ambitious production. Triptych: The missing door, The lost room and The hidden floor – three enigmatic and seductive stories that come together in a trilogy of shifting time, memory and premonition, played out in cinematic scope and atmosphere.

The acclaimed masters of mask-performance Familie Flöz (Germany) return to the Festival for the first time since 2016 with Feste, a clever social commentary about the search for understanding and happiness, presented at the Peacock Theatre.

At Little Angel Theatre, String Theatre’s A Water Journey explores themes of displacement, exile, and the importance of solidarity and friendship in caring for our Earth and her living creatures. Performed with newly created, long-string wood-carved marionettes and silhouette animation. 

String Theatre: A Water Journey

In the film programme: an online screening of Jos Houben & Marcello Magni’s Marcel, dedicated to the memory of Marcello Magni. Online until Sunday 5 February 2023.

London International Mime Festival (LIMF), the UK’s annual festival of contemporary visual theatre, opened on Monday 16 January and runs until Sunday 5 February 2023.

Full programme details and ticket booking for all shows:

A statement from London International Mime Festival: LIMF is evolving. Founded in 1977, its 47th year will see the final edition of the festival in its present form. Directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig plan to continue together to promote physical and visual theatre, maintain their consultancy and advisory roles and encourage development of physical and visual theatre artists and innovative work. Further information in due course:

 London International Mime Festival is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. 

Featured image (top of page) and above: Peeping Tom: Triptych: The missing door, The lost room and The hidden floor

The Word Made Flesh: LIMF 2023

‘Death is always present – it reminds us that we are alive.’

This is the mantra of Belgian theatre company Still Life, who present their Avignon Festival hit show Flesh at the London International Mime Festival 2023

Blackout. Ambient electronic music plays. As the lights slowly go up on the stage, we see what might be a lounge bar. Tables and chairs, velvet seating running along the back.wall. Cheery Italian pop music is playing, but the people in the room don’t seem very happy. Two are sitting on chairs set round a central table; a pregnant woman eating crisps, and a leather-jacketed man turned away from her, shoulders hunched. Another man in a dark-coloured suit is pacing up and down nervously, smoking. Mounted on a stand is a large photo of a woman, with a spray of white flowers below. We realise that this is a funeral gathering, a wake. The pregnant woman goes over to a cassette machine and changes the music to something more sombre – perhaps an adagio by Albinoni, that sort of thing. Another woman enters the room, carrying a box. What’s in it?

There are clearly complex, longterm dynamics playing out in this group of people – niggles, grudges, jealousies, rivalries. The piece builds very slowly. A terse, psychological acting out of family relationships descends little by little into an out-and-out farce featuring physical fighting, flying ashes, and alternating manic laughter, hysterical crying and primal screaming. All of this is played out as a wordless drama, with a Mike Leigh meets early Complicite kind of vibe. 

Still Life: Flesh part 4. Photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage

The piece is one of four vignettes that together make up the show Flesh, which is coming to the Barbican for the London International Mime Festival 2023, after playing to great acclaim at the Avignon Festival 2022. The show is what the Lecoq trained company Hoipolloi always talked of as situation-driven theatre: each of the four pieces takes one key scenario and works through it with a meticulous care for detail. The central idea is the driver. What if we place four warring siblings in a room with their mother’s ashes? What rituals do we need to go through in these pandemic-determined days to be allowed in to see a dying relative in an ICU? Each of the four pieces, in one way or another, deal with death or transformation of the human body.

Flesh is created and presented by the Belgian company Still Life, founded and co-directed by Sophie Linsmaux and Aurelio Mergola.

 ‘We do everything together,’ say Aurelio and Sophie when I meet with them online. ‘One mind with two bodies.’

Both of them had conventional text-based theatre backgrounds, but having finished their conservatoire training, met as young practitioners attending a three-week-long workshop at the Avignon Festival, 20 years ago. Deciding they wanted to work together, they formed Still Life as a company with ‘the body at the core’. They have created a repertoire of works that are predominantly wordless, but most definitely theatre rather than dance or mime.

The first show they made together was about death – which turns out to be a recurring theme in their work.

‘We were just young adults, but aware that death seemed to have disappeared from our society,’ says Aurelio. ‘We wanted to make something about death that was funny and playful.’ What emerged was Où les hommes mourraient encore, set in a fictional land where death has disappeared, exploring what happens when a trio of friends encounter its return.

Sophie takes up the story, mentioning the company’s second show, Keep Going – a show which set the trend for titling their work in English.

‘We wanted to make people look differently at the world – to create a theatre without words that was meaningful,’ she says.  

An interesting reflection, as one of the barbs traditionally thrown at physical/visual theatre is that it is hotter on form than on content.

Still Life: Flesh part 1. Photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Throughout the years, the company have maintained an ongoing relationship with Avignon Festival. In 2015 they, along with a number of other young Belgian theatre-makers, were commissioned to create a short-form outdoor piece – Frozen was the result. This was later developed into a longer version. Still Life returned to the festival numerous times, and were commissioned to create a new full-length piece called No One for the 2020 festival. It premiered in February 2020 at the Théâtre les Tanneurs in Brussels (where the company are based, and supported as artists in residence), and went to a few other Belgian venues, but then had to be abandoned when the Avignon Festival 2020 got pulled because of the pandemic.

‘It was terrible,’ says Aurelio. ‘We were crying!’ And it turned out that in 2021, the moment had passed for No One, so it never made it to Avignon. But they got over it, moved on, and decided to create a new work made up of short-form pieces, which resulted in Flesh. And this was indeed presented at Avignon Festival 2022, bringing the connection full-circle from that first workshop 20 years ago to a fully-fledged, full-length production. 

Over the past two decades, the core company has expanded to include administrative director Marion Couturier, and technical director Nicolas Olivier.

Other regular contributors to the work – constants for all Still life shows made in the past ten years, says Sophie – are Thomas van Zuylen, co-writer and dramaturg; choreographer/movement director Sophie Leso; and set designer Aurélie Deloche. They are joined on this production by lighting designer Guillaume Toussaint-Fromentin, adding another crucial element to the scenography. Aurelio and Sophie both say that working with the same core team over many years really enhances their work.

Still Life: Flesh part 3. Photo Hubert Amiel

I’m very interested to learn how important the writing process is for the company. We often think of word-free theatre as something that develops from a devising session in an empty space – but that’s not the case for Still Life.

‘Everything starts with a dialogue between the two of us,’ says Aurelio. ‘Then we write.’ Aurelio and Sophie will have an idea or a question, which might perhaps be inspired by a novel, or by an image from an art exhibition. Both are fans of the work of sculptor Ron Mueck (he of the ‘Dead Dad’ sculpture notoriety). 

‘We like the way Ron Mueck’s work seems realistic, but is actually fake – we try to pull those two things together in what we create onstage,’ says Aurelio.

Talking about taking their cue from the world of visual arts, Sophie says: ‘Vision is vital! We want people to really look at what they are being given; to really see…’

Once an idea has been talked through, and initial writings done, then they bring in dramaturg and co-writer Thomas Van Eyen. Thomas comes from a film background, and uses scripting techniques developed from cinema. In what Aurelio calls a ‘ping pong’ process between the three of them, they develop a very detailed script in which staging, visual imagery, physical action, music, sound effects, and lighting are all detailed.

‘We write in everything before we step into the rehearsal room,’ says Aurelio.

Still Life: Flesh part 2. Photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage

We then move on to talking about the process of creating Flesh. I ask Aurelio and Sophie whether the four separate tableaux (or short-form pieces, as they prefer to call them) were always intended to be shown together; and how they were developed.

‘We started off writing many more than four, just trying out different ideas around the theme of the body – its presence and absence,’ says Aurelio. ‘It was during the pandemic, so the fact that people could not touch each other was informing the work.’

They then sent on the first-draft pieces to Thomas who interrogated the writings, and together the three of them picked out the four pieces they wanted to develop; the ones that best foregrounded the theme of the body’s presence or absence; endurance or transformation. They later worked out the best order for the pieces – the one that would take the audience on the strongest journey. The first piece investigates the dying body; the second is about modifying the body through plastic surgery; the third investigates the dissociation between body and mind, as played out through a VR experience; and the fourth piece explores re-connecting where there has been disconnection. The work is performed by a four-person team of actors – including Sophie and Aurelio themselves.

One of the crucial elements of Flesh, as for much visual theatre, is the sound design. This is by Eric Ronsse, who is working for the company for the first time. The show features an interesting mix of pre-existing tracks, composed electronic music, and ambient sound.   

Talking of sound, Sophie emphasises the role that silence plays in the work, and we talk about the fact that theatre-makers need to be brave about such things, and to trust that audiences can handle silence, stillness and space.

Something that comes up a lot when people review Still Life’s work is the word ‘visceral’. It is very hands-on, physical work. In Flesh, we are not encountering surreal, ambivalent landscapes – the company create tangible environments, peopled by very real and present physical bodies, and then add a twist to the tale.

‘We always start our stories with something the audience knows,’ says Aurelio. ‘For example, in the first piece, the audience all have a collective memory of what a hospital room looks like, so they recognise the scene, and its associated emotions, immediately.’

So the audience are not made to do loads of work trying to identify where the scene is set. It is the situation in which the human occupants of this scenario find themselves in that is the key factor – and how they then respond to it. 

‘Some things are both terrible and funny,’ adds Sophie, ‘and this interests us.’

It is this juxtaposing of seeming opposites – the terrible and the funny, the real and the imitation, the present and the absent – that is at the heart of the company’s work.  

Still Life: Flesh. Photo Thomas Hobbs

Featured image (top): Still Life: Flesh (part 2). Photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage.

Flesh by Still Life premiered at Théâtre les Tanneurs in Brussels in February 2022, and was performed at the 76th edition of Avignon Festival in July 2022.

It comes to the Barbican 25–28 January 2023 as part of the London International Mime Festival. Book tickets here.

For more about the company, see  

London International Mime Festival (LIMF) is an established, annual festival of contemporary visual theatre. Essentially wordless and multi-disciplinary, its programme embraces circus-theatre, puppetry/animation, object theatre, mime, live art and physical theatre. 

LIMF takes place in venues across London from Monday 16 January till Sunday 5 February 2023. For full details of all theatre shows, film screening and workshops in this year’s programme, and to book, see  

Follow My Leader

Out There Festival leads the way with a fabulously rich programme of street theatre, circus and cabaret, presented in the streets, parks, beaches, and housing estates of Great Yarmouth 

It’s Saturday night, the weekend before the autumn equinox, and there’s a bit of a chill in the air here in St George’s Park, Great Yarmouth. It’s 9pm, and we are awaiting the start of Silence!, the big processional show by French street arts company Les Commandos Percu, which is one of the highlights of this year’s Out There International Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus programme.

And yes, here they come. A bunch of wild-looking men, some sort of mutant cross between steampunks and cyborgs, banging drums, shouting. With them, a team of pyrotechnicians, waving flares, throwing out firecrackers. So, off we go, past the park, along the street, and down to the seafront, the crowd gathering in size as we go. We head onto the main drag, neon lights flashing out the arcade names: Circus Circus, Gold Rush, Silver Slipper, Golden Nugget. The people streaming by are turned into shadow theatre silhouettes by those ultra-bright lights. The crowd is filling the wide avenue now – I fall behind and can no longer see Les Commandos, but I can hear them. By the time we get to the beach, people are lined up six-deep along the promenade. Ah, but there’s nothing to stop us getting on to the beach! I move along to the right, almost to the Big Wheel, and make my way onto the sand, where there’s a lot more space and a good view of the group, who have now climbed up onto their set, a fabulous rocky mountain that moves through a rainbow of colours, an ice-blue glacier one minute and a red-hot volcano the next, the indigo night sky and the shimmering sea behind them adding to the visual picture. Sound and vision work in tandem: as the musicians hammer out their thunderous beats, the ‘rock’ erupts in enormous bursts of fire and light. The music is loud – very loud – a hellfire hybrid of all sorts of rhythms, one minute sounding like a sci-fi samba troupe, the next closer to post-punk experimenters Test Department. As it all comes to a monumental climax, and the artists take their bow, the crowd erupts, clapping and cheering – delighted to have the big Saturday night spectacle back on the menu for Out There Festival. 

Les Cammandos Percu: Silence! Photo David Street

What very few here in this crowd know is that it was a close call as to whether it would happen – with the festival taking place within the official mourning period for Queen Elizabeth, there was a week of behind-the scenes negotiating to ensure that the programme, including the Saturday night parade, would go ahead. The festival directors stood their ground, and after much negotiation, it all happened – unlike very many other outdoor arts events across the country that got pulled. It is, to my mind, strange that anyone should feel it is somehow ‘disrespectful’ to make art during a mourning period, but we live in strange times. However, in order to appease the powers-that-be, the Festival made a number of concessions to the programme. Les Commandos Percu’s Silence! incorporates a minute’s silence, and is followed by the national anthem. And the festival’s Sunday programme finishes a couple of hours earlier than planned (with an earlier start so nothing is cut) in order to adhere to guidance on national mourning on the eve of the Queen’s funeral. 

The Friday evening Party in the Park ends up being transferred indoors to The Drill House – but that’s more about the inclement weather than the Queen.  So we get to stay inside, in the warm, as the wind howls and the rain falls – entertained by a line-up that includes the cheery and highly talented double act Jones & Barnard, whose years of experience as physical comedians and cabaret performers is in strong evidence in their hilarious take on magic and escapology; and the fabulous Department of Gruff, who, resplendent in some very lovely latex whole-head dog masks treat us to their versions of classics such as Puppy Love, How Much is that Doggie in the Window?, and (my favourite) The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. 

Sarah Munro: Miss O’Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama

Saturday morning – and although it isn’t that warm, at least it’s dry. So, wrapped up and clad in sturdy boots, off I head into the streets and parks of Yarmouth. Like other iterations of Out There Festival that I’ve witnessed, the 2022 programme proves to be a good mix of artforms, embracing traditional street theatre, experimental performance and installation, music, dance, and circus. Oh, and this year we also had parkour – more on that anon.

I start off with Miss O’Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama, in which Sarah Munro of the late lamented Insect Circus, in her first solo venture, presents an alternative to the regular fairground coconut shy. Miss O’Genie’s ‘damnable dolls’ turn out to be a set of famous misogynists, or archetypal misogynist figures, who we are invited to batter with fake fruit. So, you can have a go at knocking Boris Johnson or the Pope off his pedestal. Or perhaps you’d prefer to down Putin from his horse, pummel Mr Punch, or get your revenge on a gynaecologist.

As a proud former punk, I take great delight in smashing down a hippy with a nice chunky avocado. Of course, the children of Great Yarmouth join in keenly (groups of teenagers too, who are delighted that it’s free to play and that winners get sweeties), and parents are easily coerced to have a go. The show is new, but has its roots in an installation done by Sarah Munro for Vanessa Toulmin’s The Wonder Show, a contemporary reworking of classic circus sideshow acts. It works very well in this new context, and is a great addition to the outdoor arts circuit. Fun for all the family – and proof that political performance doesn’t have to be po-faced to make a point.

The Dazzling Dollirama is one of a number of installation pieces presented at this year’s Out There Festival – and interestingly enough, challenging misogyny seems to be a key theme. Scottish artist Eilidh Reilly’s Alright Doll takes the form of a number of signs hung from trees (‘Educate Your Sons’ says one, which I am drawn to as a mother of three sons!) and a soundtrack of verbatim texts recorded from interviews with women, debunking the notion of the ‘unlucky’ woman victim of violence, and challenging mainstream portrayals of street harassment. At various points in the day, Eilidh Reilly invites passing women to sit down with a cup of tea and contribute soundbites to the work. Alright Doll was supported by Surge (Scotland) as part of the Four Nations programme for emerging artists, which offered funding to six artists to create work that has toured to Wales, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland. It’s good to see multi-media installation included in the programme – it might not have as immediate an appeal as the classic street theatre or circus show, but I think audiences appreciate the variety offered at Out There.

And talking of variety, an odd-bod addition to the programme is Japanese musician ICHI with his One Man Band, in which he sets up on the corner of a busy shopping road and plays a fabulous array of unusual and homemade instruments, from wonky keyboards to mellotrons and a Kalilaphone (a kind of whistling calliope, I think this might be) via bells and balloons. It is all totally bats and absolutely brilliant.

Spitz & Co: Blue Hawaii

On to the more regular festival shows now. Flying the flag for classic street theatre come Spitz & Co, previously seen at Out There Festival 2019 with the fabulous Les Gloriables, which referenced and deconstructed Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The company’s latest work, Blue Hawaii, is also a two-hander. The subject this time is Elvis Presley – or rather, it merges the stories of Elvis and an Elvis impersonator who is remaking the film Blue Hawaii, played here by (yes!) a well-known Elvis impersonator, Joe Reeve. And I’ll say here that my walk home at 10pm the previous evening taught me that Elvis is alive and well and living in Yarmouth – almost every pub I passed was either playing Elvis tunes or had an Elvis impersonator performing live. So naturally, this show goes down very well with the local crowd. Joe Reeve as Elvis/the Elvis impersonator sings brilliantly and works very well with Spitz mainstay Suzie Donkin, whose alter-ego Josephine Cunningham plays everyone else – tour manager, girlfriend, fan or whatever (game-playing within game-playing here). As with Les Gloriables, there’s a great deal of fourth-wall breaking and stepping in and out of the action, emphasising the fact that a show is being created live in front of our very eyes, in a public space. Costumes (Hawaiian shirts, glittery jumpsuits) are tugged on and off, in full view or behind deliberately inadequate screens that hide nothing. Audience members are drawn in to the action – blow-up dolphins are crowd-surfed, people are serenaded, and there’s a very lovely scene featuring a pre-schoolers’ air-guitar contest that morphs into choosing a band to back Elvis. We always feel that we are in safe hands, and Suzie AKA Josephine in particular has an enviable ability to respond in the moment to whatever is happening in the space, with true street theatre sassiness and know-how.

Adrenalism: Hey Idiots, Text Me Your Climate Change Solutions. Photo Katherine Mager

Also a two-hander, and also demonstrating an admirable ability to hold a space, communicate with an audience, and think on their feet come Adrenalism – a young company who are already performing with a great deal of street theatre noose. Hey Idiots, Text Me Your Climate Change Solutions features a pair of middle-management PR guys called Warren and Stew, who (despite working for a fossil fuel multinational), are tasked with drawing us into a collective bout of blue-sky thinking to solve the climate change crisis. Yep, just like that! Easy peasy! We can do it, we have scientists! We first meet our two stooges on the street, hoisting up their ‘Text Me’ placard, clambering up onto dustbins to proclaim their intents, tripping over street furniture, and herding people into the performance area. Once they’ve rounded up an audience, we’re into an increasingly ridiculous mock-conference, with a classic clown ‘master and servant’ set-up as bossy Warren belittles the poor (Lamb) Stew and cajoles him into a ludicrous blow-up world costume, whilst also scrolling through the texts coming in on his outdated Nokia that can’t read the emojis. In a world awash with ‘climate change’ shows, it is great to see one that so cleverly satirises the notion of quick-fix and painless solutions – particularly if they are being touted by the very people who’ve caused the problem in the first place. A wonderfully refreshing piece of street theatre – if we’re in the end days for human life on this planet, at least, with Adrenalism, we’ll go down laughing. 

Another Out There show tackling the climate crisis, Foolish Doom, is the brainchild of Peter Sweet and Leonie Baker, working under the name Tiny Colossus. They play the wizard Burnhart (a kind of Gandalf/Merlin/Dumbledore hybrid) and his loyal creature Pippa (a green-skinned imp) who have been magically transported here to save our world. After a strong start, riffing on the power of magic and magicians, we move into a rather too polemical explanation of where we are at with the climate crisis and potential solutions, but then the script takes a turn for the better again with the realisation that there are, in fact, no magic solutions. It is a little too slow, and labours its points too heavily at times, but this is off-set by great costumes and a fabulous set (a wonderfully wonky wagon pulled through the streets to the performance site, where they are nicely framed by trees and bushes); some lovely live musical moments using keyboards and a great range of unusual percussion instruments; and some truly fabulous puppetry, as a copper coffee pot and dish become numerous characters met along the way by Burnhart and Pippa. It could certainly benefit from a bit of cutting and tweaking and mulching down, but on balance, the positive aspects of the piece – the strong visual imagery and physical presence, the musicality, the rapport with the audience – outweigh the down points.

Jolie Vyann: Timeless. Photo James Bass

Created under the auspices of the Without Walls consortium, and developed with the support of Out There Arts, Joli Yvann’s Timeless also tackles the big question of our day – the survival of our civilisation when the human race seems hell-bent on self-destruction. This time, in a piece using dance and acrobatics played out on a big structure – a giant egg-timer in which the four performers run like hamsters within, or clamber or dangle on the outside, exploring notions of ‘time, irreversibility and climate change’. Inevitably, the structure does eventually become an hourglass, a conduit for the sands of time trickling through. There is no going back! It is a word-free physical piece for the most part, although it incorporates spoken word in the form of recorded speeches by David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg integrated into the soundscape. The superb physical skills of the company are evident as they perform gasp-worthy moves on and round the revolving structure. But to be completely honest, I prefer the soft and fluid floorwork and acrobalance (the core of the company’s work) to those scenes on the big spinning contraption, which is a bit of a one-trick pony. Once we’ve seen people whizzing around inside it and hanging on the outside of it screaming whilst the winds howl (soundtrack winds, although the piece had to be transferred from the seafront to a town-centre plaza because of the real wind!), the novelty wears off a bit. I also find myself thinking whilst I watch that there is an irony to a show about environmental issues being so strongly tied to this cumbersome piece of kit that is subject to technical breakdowns, and no doubt takes a lot of energy to move around the country. But there is no denying the abilities of the four performers, the strength of the choreography, and the noble intentions of their vision for this piece.

Tripotes La Compagnie: Encore Une Fois. Photo Peter Morgan

Elsewhere in the festival there is circus a-plenty. Belgium’s Tripotes La Compagnie bring us Encore Une Fois, a three-person show ‘seesawing between reckless danger and perilous fragility’. The ‘reckless danger’ element is some truly stupendous teeterboard work. The ‘perilous fragility’ plays out in jokey hand-to-hand and acro sequences which embrace a healthy dose of physical clowning as the three performers push, pull and tease each other. The show is performed on a high stage, rather than at ground level with the audience up close, which means that the very slow build-up (with no soundtrack) gets a bit lost. I see the show twice and it is only on second viewing that I appreciate that very slow beginning, which involves much small-talk, and small-scale interaction with the audience, most of which I lost first time round, thinking something had gone wrong with the soundtrack!

The 2021 Out There Festival programme put the emphasis on British outdoor arts (for obvious reasons), and that worked very well. But it is great to see so many overseas companies back on the bill for 2022. Planned for both 2020 and 2021, and thwarted two years in a row, Argentina’s ManoAmano are finally back here at the Festival with the UK premiere of Kinematos, a piece about a desire to fly that is full of charm and humour, all hung (literally) around a core of fabulous Chinese pole work and daredevil climbing and balancing. There is a delightful rapport between the two performers (who are a couple in real life – but that doesn’t always automatically transfer to stage complicity!), with plenty of clowning moments adding zest to the pole work and acrobatic routines. Sassy costumes add to the spectacle, and there’s a  fantastic soundtrack – morphing from a Spanish version of King of the Road to a perky Charleston (danced to very skilfully, I was pleased to see), and then on to a Piazzolla tango that provides the impetus for a gorgeous pole double-act. A complete and satisfying show that takes the audience by storm – bravo!

ManoAmano: Kinematos. Photo James Bass

Italian clown and circus performer Margherita Mischitelli’s Amore Pony is a journey into the feminine which mixes balancing, Cyr wheel, clowning, and audience interaction – with, as seen on this occasion, varying degrees of success. It is all a little rocky, although to give her the benefit of the doubt, she has many elements conspiring against her. For a start, her pitch on the seafront is not ideal as the sea wind clearly interferes with her routines: a high-heel clad bottle-walk that should be one of the highlights of the show has to be aborted as she loses balance and falls off in the wind. Of course when the Festival programmed this and other work onto the seafront, they weren’t to know the weather would turn far more autumnal than it has been in previous years in mid-September. But this isn’t actually the main problem – audiences are very forgiving, and we could see she was struggling with the bottle-walk so gave her a big round of applause regardless. The key issue is her hesitancy in engaging fully with the audience due to language difficulties. Unlike ManoAmano, who use an engaging mix of English, Spanish and gobbledygook, Mischitelli insists on sticking to a faltering English, rather than riffing and improvising in her native Italian or a mix of languages, and thus comes across as lacking in confidence – for example, as she tries to get a team of men into colour-coded tabards in order to join her in a processional dance routine, which becomes a painfully slow process marred by odd pauses. I would have dearly loved to see her perform in Italian, as she is (I’m sure) a talented circus artist with some good ideas; this obscured by the problems of communication, site and weather.

Still with the hybrid circus, and also thwarted somewhat by the weather: Daisy Black’s Feral is an odd one – a mix of live and filmed aerial circus/dance and recorded spoken word text, exploring the notion of rewilding and working with the cycle of nature as we move through the year, from spring to summer to autumn to winter. The live performance section is at the beginning, and pretty short. I was assuming there would be a return to live action at the end, but no. The film is really beautiful, with words that play poetically with rhythm and repetition, and moving images that use a gorgeous palette of earth colours and tones to express mood in a painterly fashion; the solo performer seen engaging with the natural environment, hanging from trees (on silks or a Lyra hoop), walking barefoot through leaves, handling stones. But it is long, and difficult to watch at night in a cold park. Perhaps if the weather had been warmer, more of the audience would have stayed to the end, but as it was, many left. 

Farm Yard Circus. Photo James Bass

Also a circus show dealing with the natural world, albeit in a completely different way, is the homegrown Farm Yard Circus – presented by a company with the same name, an eight-strong ensemble (six acrobats, two musicians) who create a joyous melange of tumbling, juggling, and balancing. It’s a delight to watch the little girls in the audience gazing adoringly at the big girls in the show who, dressed in dungaree-shorts with hair pulled into rough bunches, stand shoulder-to-shoulder (literally) with the boys in the troupe, morphing from base to flyer, carrying and throwing with gusto. And the boys are pretty good, too! What is new and fresh and a great advert for the future of UK circus is the size of the ensemble, the range of skills, and the way this lot work together, with the six physical performers fighting fit and full of beans, the two musicians ably employing a range of instruments from banjo to drums and bells, the acrobats augmenting the music with turns on the accordion or percussion. A couple of moments feel a little derivative – some apple juggling sat on a row of chairs that is perhaps a nod to Gandini’s Smashed; some wheelbarrow-wielding and tractor tyre balancing that is a reminder of Cirque Alfonse’s Animal. But that’s a jaded old reviewer talking – when you’ve seen a lot, you’ll inevitably see echoes of other work in young companies. To the excited audiences of Great Yarmouth this is irrelevant – they certainly know a great street show when they see it and respond accordingly, showing their appreciation loudly and with great gusto.

Be Flat: Follow Me: Photo Marcin Rodwell

Back to the overseas companies: Belgian company Be Flat have a new take on circus, the duo of acrobats combining their skills in tumbling and balancing with a breathtaking demonstration of parkour in an aptly-named show called Follow Me, reworked for each new environment that the company present the work – in this case, in and around the Malakoff estate in Yarmouth, where the company were embedded for the week before the Festival, working with local residents on creating a route through the estate.

We start in an outdoor urban courtyard, a rather bleak asphalted space, fenced in by garages and brick walls bearing signs that say No Ball Games. In the centre of the courtyard are a pile of lightweight collapsible chairs – the type that people carry with them on hikes or to outdoor concerts. And yes, after some warm-up play on and round the chair-mountain, we are all issued with one, and whistled at with smiles of encouragement. So off we go – following our two performers, who take it in turns to lead the group whilst entertaining us by scrabbling up and over walls and railings, through gardens, and up and down trees. As we turn past the remains of the old city walls, the ante is upped as the two performers scale heights, walk along spiked railings with a sheer drop below, and create acrobalance poses in the most unlikely of places – at the top of an archway, say, or halfway up a wall like a pair of spidermen. 

But what of those chairs? We are instructed to wear them like little metal skirts, then form a processional line to dance along the street holding on to the person in front, each of two lines led off by one of the performers. Or we are wordlessly herded along a road and set up as two lines sitting in traverse, so that the two acrobats can take turns cartwheeling and flipping along between us; this turning into a lovely strip-the-willow type dance as we pair up and move along the soul train, waving our chairs in the air, to the applause of the rest of the group.

At another point in the show, we sit facing a block of flats and watch astonished as our fearless duo climb up walls and walk along window ledges, stopping to say a quick hello to a man and his dog who are out on their balcony; fetching a small ladder so they can get right up to roof level. That ladder takes on another role in a later scene, when it surprisingly becomes a flute, accompanying a Stomp-like percussive scene as poles, railings and walls get played. In the final scene, there’s a surprise third performer discovered, playing drums above a flat-roofed garage with a graffiti’d door. 

Such a wonderful show! The phenomenal physical skills, the use of site, the humour,  the tender care of the audience. It is especially good to see the groups of teenagers from Yarmouth really owning the show – and if they happened to come from the estate where it is staged, and have thus witnessed the creation process over the past week, proudly explaining key moments to their mates (‘Oh yeah, when they did this the other day there was a lady behind those curtains looking really surprised!’). In a weekend full of strong outdoor arts work, Follow Me is for me the very best of the fest. It’s the final show that I see in the streets on Sunday afternoon.

The African Choir of Norwich at The Drill House. Photo Marcin Rodwell

Follow Me sees the end of the outdoor programme, which finishes at 4pm to honour the needs of those who wish to mourn on the eve of the Queen’s funeral, or to attend a local vigil – but the fun isn’t done as we move indoors to The Drill House for the finale. The Festival goes out with a bang as we are treated to an indoor version of Chris Lynam’s anarchic clown show, The Beast of Theatre – in which he bares his bottom to a family audience, sets fire to the stage, and dresses a man from the audience in a tutu before smashing up his watch with a hammer. Good to see that age hasn’t mellowed him – the day Chris Lynam plays it safe is the day we know that it’s all over. 

As a gentle come-down, we have a lovely set from the African Choir of Norfolk, who give us a pan-African selection of tunes, taking us from Morocco in the north of the continent to South Africa, and plenty inbetween. The night ends with Festival Lounge DJ sets from El Diablo Rojo and Bmore McVowty, with poetry projections from Colossal Youth. Backstage, artists gather for a final meal together, and much Portuguese wine is drunk…

So, that’s it – another year done. It has clearly been a challenging one for the Festival’s directors and producers – just when you think everything’s getting back to normal, post pandemic, there’s the unsettling weather and a dying monarch to contend with. As artistic director Joe Mackintosh says at the opening of this year’s proceedings: ‘We’re now in a world that has change as its constant.’

Yet within the continuing turmoil, Out There Festival is proving to be, in Joe’s words again, ‘a small point of solidity’. We don’t know what next year will bring, but I’m betting that whatever it is, Joe Mackintosh, his co-director Veronica Stephens, and their fabulous production team will rise above it all and bring us another fantastic experience on the streets of Yarmouth.

Out There Festival 2022. Photo Peter Morgan

Featured image (top of page}: Be Flat: Follow Me sited on the Malakoff Estate Great Yarmouth for Out There Festival 2022. Photo Katherne Mager.

Out There Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus took place 16–18 September 2022. 

Out There Festival, which recently presented its 14th edition, has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme. Regularly attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year. Out There has built a national and international reputation for world-class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement. See 

Out There Arts, the producers of the Out There Festival, and Great Yarmouth Borough Council are presenting Fire on the Water – Beach Edition 22–29 October 2022,  sponsored by Visit Great Yarmouth, CPP – Freshly Greated and Interreg Experience. This year’s edition will take place on the golden sands of Great Yarmouth for a dynamic and dramatic outdoor experience featuring dance and acrobatic performances, light installations and night-time fire shows. For further details on this and other year-round activities see see