Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 29 January 2016

Review: Dark Circus at Barbican

Barbican Pit ⋄ 26th - 30th January 2016

The circus where ‘no one is a “freak”, only a little lonely, a little heart-worn and frightened of the world.’

Maddy Costa
Stereoptik perform Dark Circus at the Barbican. Photo: Stereoptik.

Stereoptik perform Dark Circus at the Barbican. Photo: Stereoptik.

Roll up, roll up! Step right up, folks, and let me tell you about the Dark Circus – or should I say the magic circus, where you won’t believe your eyes? Gather round, gather round and I will tell of tattooed ladies and human cannonballs, lions and wild horses, monochrome but lively souls conjured into existence with charcoal and animated film and a few flicks of ink. The men who run the Dark Circus – Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet – are artists and musicians, and let me tell you, they are the kind of versatile that will make your head spin. Marvel as Bermond scatters sand across a light-box, then uses a piece of card to cut it into a cityscape, then dapples his fingers amid the scene to create … you, the audience! Thrill as Maillet runs his fingers across the strings of an acoustic guitar, parting the Latinate chords to reveal … Mexico Perez, the lion-tamer! Feel your heart beat faster as a silhouette of a horse comes cinematically to life, galloping out of the circus into a field – no, a paddock – no, the Jardin du Luxembourg – hurtling over sheep – sailing over a chasm – until at last…

Come closer, now, folks, we need to whisper this bit. Haven’t you ever sat in the circus and wondered what might happen if the trick went … wrong? Of course you have! And at the Dark Circus all those deepest, darkest imaginings come true. We have misery like you wouldn’t believe – disaster at every turn – and just when you think it’s become wholly predictable, we will do our best to surprise you again. And because children are welcome to enter the Dark Circus, it’s bleak but it’s not nasty: no animals were harmed in the making of this performance, and no one is a “freak”, only a little lonely, a little heart-worn and frightened of the world.

Why else would George Swift, the human cannonball, gaze so wistfully at the moon, longing to fly among the planets rather than be rooted here? Why else would our mysterious juggler at first appear transparent, painted in nothing more than water at first, the woebegone invisible man, until a single drop of black ink gives him melancholy presence? There is beauty in sadness and don’t we just know it: there are scenes in Dark Circus so ravishing they’ll make you want to cry. Sigh as Wang the knife-thrower emerges from a pool of bubbling water with illuminated limbs; sob as her loving lover Battista is circled by a Chinese dragon before meeting his grisly end.

But don’t let me give you the impression that Dark Circus is a grim show, a despondent show, no! I’ll say it again, this is a show suitable for children: they are our heroes, in whom all our dreams remembered, and if you’ve got them, don’t come without them now, because won’t you just wish they’d seen it too. We call it Dark Circus but we give so much light amid the dark – and I’m talking gold glitter here, friends – and good-time music, too, on looping guitar and snapping snare and keyboards that take you to the moon and back. You want romance like Michel Legrand? We can give you it! You want pop electronica like Daft Punk? We can give you it! You want disco? We can give you it! Our boys, Bermond and Maillet, have made you a soundtrack that weaves in and out of live and recorded, reflective and menacing, taking sounds from here, there and everywhere to keep the story moving. And with every shift in the sound comes a shift in the art: another roll of the paper on which landscapes unfurl, another twirl of the marionettes and another flick of paint to make our greyscale world glow Technicolor. What did I tell you? Versatile. So step right up, folks, step right up…

Dark Circus is on at the Barbican until 30th January 2016. Click here for more details.

This show was part of London International Mime Festival. Click here for more details.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

Review: Dark Circus at Barbican Show Info


Written by Conceived by Stereoptik, adapted from an original story by Pef, Artistic Collaborator Frédéric Maurin

Cast includes Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet

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