Pitched as a mixture of storytelling and circus, this new production from Black Cat Cabaret feels a bit like it’s reaching for something. There’s ambition here but it never quite fuses the two things together and there’s something a bit uncomfortable about the experience as a whole.
The narrative element, such as it is, sees a harried office worker – played by Ben Cutler – doze off on the underground and enter a kind of dream landscape, a borderland between sleep and wakefulness, populated by his fantasies and anxieties – which, conveniently, all take the form of various circus and cabaret acts.
Taken on their own terms these routines are very entertaining. Amy G in a silver lame playsuit and roller skates crops up as the protagonist’s mother. Clasping a drink in her hand, speech slightly slurred, her sequences are like a Richard Yates novel on wheels. Her ability to seem out of control and all over the place as a performer while maintaining a precise grip on things is incredibly impressive. She’s brilliantly physical, limbs akimbo, slip-sliding around the stage as her body seemingly runs away from her, a pleasure to watch. Her presence also makes sort of makes sense within the psychological framework of the show. But the sequences that follow feel more and more removed from the initial set-up. That’s not to say they’re not exciting. The impressive aerial work of Bret Pfister and Katrina Lilwall drew deserved grasps from the audience – though these turned to winces when a moment of mistiming le to tumbler Isis Clegg-Vinell hitting the floor, hard, a jarring reminder of the peril of circus work, the potential for danger and damage.
But Nocturne’s central narrative thread, never very thick to begin with, soon begins to fray and the production as a whole feels less than the sum of its parts. The journey into the mind of the protagonist feels like a device, a hook to hang a series of acts on rather than anything more developed or sustained. Lili La Scala acts as a cut-glass guide to this dream-realm but, again while she’s an engaging performer, her sequences don’t add that much to the character’s journey; she’s more of compere than a narrator. You keep waiting for things to click, for some kind of more coherent story to emerge, a through-line, but it remains a disjointed experience
This might have been less problematic were it not for the faintly sexualised tone of some of the acts, the wan attempts at titillation; some of the costumes worn by the female performers must surely chafe, and even though Cutler ends up scuttling around in his pants too by the end of things, there’s something a bit tiresome about the production’s wish to be risqué. The terrain of the subconscious seems to contain a lot of nipple tassels. The patchiness of the narrative is compounded by Cutler’s passivity as protagonist. He’s not without presence as a performer, but there’s no sense of investment in his plight, or even an entirely solid grasp of what his plight is. This feels like a show with the potential to evolve and some of the individual routines, taken on their own, are thrilling, but in its current form it feels frustratingly slight and fragmented, the writing secondary, an afterthought.