Circus has come a long way since 1768. That was the year Philip Astley first began performing “feats on horsemanship” while his wife beat a big drum in a ring near Waterloo. In this 250thanniversary year of the modern circus, SOAP returns to London, having toured the world, as one of a glut of circus shows being presented at the Underbelly South Bank until September.
The format of SOAP is a familiar one thanks to the massive success of shows like La Soiree and La Clique, but the repertoire here is predominantly acrobatic. At the top of the show, a tannoy announcement encourages the audience to “get ready to get wet.” In particular those on the front row, who are given sheets of plastic to protect themselves, as the overarching theme is bathroom-related.
Astley’s eighteenth century audience probably wasn’t ready for such an explicit theme, but one thing that does connect SOAP with its equine predecessor is an appetite for danger. Static trapeze, hand balancing, and the silks are all impressively executed, with the added frisson of being performed in the rain, on the edge of a porcelain bath, and in a pair of sopping wet jeans, respectively.
The Spiegeltent audience is close enough to see the metal trapeze bar slick with water. And during a balletic dance routine, the feet of one of the bathtubs lift slightly off the floor, a reminder of the ever present risk involved.
The simplicity of this USP is effective but it doesn’t really go far enough. Ushers equipped with watery puns promised there wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house by the end of the show, but it doesn’t induce much pant-wetting of the exhilarating or hilarious kind. And the front row wasn’t nearly wet enough after seventy minutes of bath time.
Philip Astley’s wife, Patty, didn’t only provide the musical accompaniment to her husband’s performances. She also performed an act where she rode around the ring with her arms and hands covered in swarms of bees. SOAP is performed masterly by an extraordinarily talented cast but it lacks that jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing response that is the very foundation stone of the circus.
There’s a sexy, sultry intensity to some of the routines but just as things begin to heat up, a rubber duck floats to the surface and the atmosphere lightens. From the synchronised swimming routine at the top of the show, to the comic operatic interludes, its all a bit too much like good clean fun.
The character that invites us into this watery world is a clown with all the childlike awe of Alice in Wonderland. She gazes in amazement as the acrobats tumble through the air above her. Her broad smile, and playfulness are infectious as she teases the audience. It is this character that sets the tone, and although the show is a lot of fun to watch, the register sits squarely in the family friendly category.
SOAP is on until 17 June 2018 at Underbelly. Click here for more details.