The first Priceless London Wonderground festival makes itself heard by means of a straw-hatted man bellowing genially into a loud-hailer on the South Bank, beckoning passers-by towards a 1920s Spiegeltent marquee. It is the venue for the opening night of Cantina, a circus-cum-vaudeville show bringing together a small group of seasoned performers from Australia and Europe, and the Cantina aesthetic is apparent everywhere. Billed as ‘escapist fantasy’, there is a resolute commitment to all that’s vaguely old-world: the girl that took my ticket might as well have painted her legs in Bisto and had a gas-mask slung over her shoulder.
Inside the Spiegeltent the atmosphere of supressed excitement and appetite for the tawdry is contagious. At the rear of the stage a collection of battered musical instruments – at least two of which have been constructed from suitcases – are lit by guttering candles, and a young man in shirtsleeves is balancing a flower on the end of his nose.
The performance begins with a touching, low-key tight-rope scene which eases the unwitting audience into the night. Cleverly, you’d be forgiven for wondering how competent the nervy-looking young woman in the 30s house-coat is, but don’t be fooled: within twenty minutes it’s clear there is no feat of athletic freakery beyond the cast, including being impervious to broken glass.
There is no obviously sustained narrative thread in the show, which is something of a missed trick, since the small, engaging cast would have lent itself to a well-told tale. Still, there are scenes which are as gripping in their way as any drama, and – perhaps most pleasingly – it proves genuinely subversive.
At first Cantina might appear yet another arrival on the increasingly tedious ‘vintage’ scene; a pick’n’mix of everything everyone loves about the world between the wars. Speakeasy chic, braces and Brylcreem, tea dresses, the Charleston, boys in grubby vests that ought to be bare-knuckl boxing for dollars outside some Brooklyn bar: it’s all here. But beneath that agreeable veneer is something rather darker, offering a genuine challenge to the nu-burlesque, which is largely no naughtier than a cupcake. Here, there are moments of casual brutality between the genders which are more shocking in retrospect than they were at the time: it’s never quite clear which is the stronger sex, and who might be damaging whom.
The show is designed and choreographed by the cast, and it is perhaps this that makes Cantina such a wholly seductive experience. If shows by companies like Cirque du Soleil can appear a little po-faced, it is because everything is sacrificed to perfection: here, character and charm and occasionally mucky asides are prized. Most seductive of all is Mozes, who is possessed of an almost Satanic attractiveness and submits to something like a cross between circus artistry and Japanese rope bondage, not to mention a gleefully filthy take on the ‘torn up newspaper’ trick. Henna Kaikula might look rather sweet, with her shingled platinum hair and slender white arms, but she possess a horrible ability to dissolve her own joints: the audience did not so much gasp as shove their fists in the mouth in awe and disgust. Chelsea McGuffin is one moment cunning little vixen, all tattoos and fishnets, and the next tentative playgirl wondering if she can balance on a champagne-bottle by one naked toe. David
Carberry and Daniel Catlow submit to a number of sexually-charged torments with remarkable skill and joie de vivre, although at one point – and any viewer will immediately know which – I winced hard enough to slip a disc.
The musical accompaniment is superb. It is by turns melancholy, sensual, sinister and threatening, and includes what sounds like an unholy Cole Porter/DJ Shadow mash-up, a version of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic that would give any sensitive child nightmares, and musician Beau Dudding idly interpreting Erik Satie’s mournful piano solos as Spanish classical guitar.
Cantina‘s deliciously sleazy presence on the South Bank is a welcome departure from the bunting-and-Pimms ethic of summer 2012.