A huge cast, giant set, live band, large-scale choreographed pieces: a West End Musical? No, this is the maverick and very popular Invisible Circus, purveyors of edgy immersive circus-theatre-party experiences in Bristol since 2002. The Happiness Machine is the Invisibles’ most formal piece of work, in recent years at least; a full-length stage show performed before a seated audience.
The scale is impressive – a cast of 25 and a six person live band allow for such moments as four aerial ‘showgirls’ on counterweighted hoops flying up and down as a backdrop to a singing TV quiz show host performing for a couch potato character. An overstressed office worker performs a teetering slack-rope routine as bespectacled colleagues throw paper around, pass him multiple ringing telephones or sit at desks typing. Neat styling and effective choreography emphasise the pressure of these ratrace scenes, and it’s all rather stressful. There’s lots to look at, the skills are high, the music’s good.
The aforementioned slob and the bureaucrat are two of four main through-characters; these two live in two-storey ‘houses’ that make up the big-top-sized set, so that whenever they’re not directly on-stage we can see them through the windows of their homes. In counterbalance to those two mundane inhabitants of this bustling town are two outsider characters. The first, a little Alice-in-Wonderland/Luna Lovegood character is too young to take everything life throws at her for granted, and the second is the Invisibles’ notorious and Faginesque, Doug Francisco, who plays a carny pedlar of curios, wheeling his van of trinkets around, dispatching wisdom and insults in equal measure. ‘I’ll put the ‘we’ into your ‘wedding’, the ‘fun’ into your funeral’ he snarls, and he actually does break into an almost-song at one point, which is rather twee, though generally his character works well. His words are the only script, and are a very basic warning against getting sucked into ‘The Happiness Machine’ – the cycle of marketing, desire and disappointment that the Invisible Circus feel our lives are dominated by.
Some of this is rather shallowly done, although several fantastic scenes about ‘Golden Gloves’ (in reality, Marigolds) are particularly memorable. The Golden Gloves billboard overlooks the town, the TV advert comes to life with panache (and circus skills, of course), and later on, a bathetic ‘housewife’ receives a parcel of her desired Golden Gloves in the post, only to be bitterly disappointed. A similar sequence during the second half of the show is less successful, and in general it’s easiest to sit and marvel at the scale of the performance, the effort that’s gone into it, and the skill level, which is generally both high and varied.