No Show is a circus show. It features five incredibly powerful and skilled circus performers. They have degrees in circus arts. They can backflip, walk on their hands and swing from a trapeze.
But it feels more like theatre that just so happens to be about circus. It pulls apart what we expect from circus, and from women in the industry, and from people who perform.
Ellie Dubois’ production is centred on perfectionism. Even these highly trained, almost superhuman circus performers are subject to unrealistic expectations. As performer Michelle declares, she saw a guy on Instagram who held his whole body at 90 degrees to his arms! Alice can’t do that, as Michelle and Kate, in exaggerated coach-trainer-agent roles, repeatedly remind her. Even though she can bend her entire body to 360 degrees the other way.
That’s the thing about circus, more obviously than other art forms. When you start with a backflip that exudes a gasp from the audience, the next trick has to be even more impressive, even more dangerous. Where do you go when you’re starting at the top?
No Show begins with a dazzling opening routine which incorporates trick after trick after perfectly choreographed trick. Five female circus performers, clad in identical leotards with individual ribbons, leap and grin across the stage in what feels like an aeronautic beauty pageant. They perform to the Bing Crosby, song ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’. I can imagine a lecherous emcee commentating the show- ‘there goes Fran, isn’t she lovely everyone!’
The performers are accomplished and delightful, and there’s some good old fashioned gasps and whoops from the Soho theatre audience.
But then, there’s a pause.
They take time to just… stand on stage.
They showcase skills on the Cyr wheel, getting closer and closer to the floor, closer to danger, crushed toes, dislocated limbs.
Then, they pause.
They sit huddled on the floor.
The piece dares you to simply watch what is happening on stage. It gives the same stage space to death-defying circus tricks as to a segment where they eat doughnuts in silence. It makes me aware of how greedy I am when I watch performance. We want performers, particularly women, to give us more and more, to jump higher, smile wider.
No Show revels in not putting on a show. The most exquisite sections of the piece are those when it appears that they’ve forgotten the audience is there. There’s a gorgeous parry in the structure of the piece between tightly disciplined routine and sections of pure play. One scene consists of performer Camille’s Cyr circle routine, narrated by Kate’s recital of all the exact dangers Camille is putting herself under. It’s very specifically a showcase of skill, lived in the closest proximity to danger. The danger they put themselves through for the price of a ticket.
But then that section is over, the side lights come in, and Camille just.. plays. And it’s beautiful. The music soars, she flies, and it’s like I’ve forgotten the danger, and they’ve forgotten we’re there.
A similar parry happens later on in the show. Performer Alice, who has been repeatedly prevented from introducing herself, exaggeratedly flips her hair under instruction from her two team mates. ‘Come on Alice, give us a smile, yeah that’s great’.
In the next scene, Fran is swung around the auditorium, from a 50ft tethered rope, BY HER HAIR.
She is slowly lifted up, tense and testing. Then, they just play. It’s strong, and graceful, and beautiful to watch.
The sound design by Kim Moore is absolutely cracking. The traditional ‘circus tunes’ are relegated to the accordion, which is only occasionally wheeled out as a prop to ham things up. At the very end, as the performers squeeze their hands up their bodies into a perfect gymnast’s pose, the noise crunches and whirrs in a suffocating industrial soundscape until blackout. It makes me think, that this has all been about work. It’s circus, it’s being female, and it’s also being a worker.
I think No Show is about the beauty and grace that comes from performers making performance work (play) on their own terms.
It lets me watch these extraordinary women flip, tumble and fly; and then rest, watch each other, appreciate each other. It’s meditative in its spectacle, both subtle and dazzling.