The Invisible Circus
Bristol Old Vic, 10 April 2015
From the opening shadow theatre sequence, Under the Dark Moon‘s atmosphere of macabre beauty combined with the blackest humour is clear. The silhouettes of elegant dancers are chased across the stage by giants. A child won’t stop eating, becoming grotesque.
When “Old Victor”, the ringleader/storyteller (see what they did there?), introduces his troupe, he invites us – even implores us – to delight in their misfortune, to laugh at their pain and sorrow. They have suffered for their art, and he positively encourages that. One by one he tells their stories, and while there is plenty of clowning fun, they don’t shy away from plumbing the depths of human despair.
The show is made up of six original fairy tales, but they might also be described as stories of gothic horror crossed with deliciously dark comedy – think Roald Dahl or Tim Burton and then vamp it up a bit.
Each character expresses their story in a combination of dance, silent comedy and acrobatics while Old Victor narrates. There’s the young couple whose baby dies and each find a different – and unusual – way to cope. There’s the woman whose grandmother bequeaths her a mysterious box that she must never stop touching – a literal anchor holding her down. There’s the feral child who was happy until she was brought to the big city. The greedy child whose eating of sweets is compulsive. The servant whose master preys on his insecurities. All six descend into madness until they are forced to a grand cathartic performance. But was it truly their awful lives pushing them to this point or was it Old Victor pulling the strings?
The individual stories have their own comedy (some more than others) but there is also the live band, a comedy music troupe par excellence, taking the role of clowns but also adding pathos to some of the tales as a backing chorus. They switch seamlessly from barbershop quartet to cheery folksy players to creators of eerie sound effects, all the while staying in character.
I am a sucker for both grim fairy tales and the circus, so this could not have been pitched more perfectly for me. At first I was a little impatient for them to get to the acrobatics, knowing the renown of the Invisible Circus, but on reflection it was all just right. The tales are haunting – despite the vamping up of costumes and comedy, the stories themselves are chillingly real. Wonderfully, the event programme, rather than being simply a cast list and photos, is instead a collection of miniature short stories, telling each character’s tale, and I know I will find myself going back to it and reading those stories, recreating in my mind the spectacle of trapeze and tightrope and all those other clever tricks, but also seeing the expressions on the actors’ faces, the brilliant depictions of sorrow and insanity.
Under the Dark Moon is at Bristol Old Vic until 18 April.
Tickets were kindly supplied by the theatre in return for an honest review.