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Nights at the Circus

Angela Carter, adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice
Co-production with Bristol Old Vic in association with Kneehigh Theatre
Lyric, Hammersmith
(2006)

The story of Fevvers, a feminist icon who waves goodbye to the repressive Nineteenth Century and heralds in its hope-filled successor, made for a great magic realist novel from a writer whose early loss is still greatly lamented.

Miss Carter's work has been transferred to the stage before. The Magic Toyshop was impressively reworked by Shared Experience but this large novel was never going to be easy.

Ideally, it requires live tigers and pigs on stage, together with a heroine who soars like a bird, aided by a pair of wings that mark her out as a freak destined to earn her living in a circus.

Natalia Tena, a Lyric fixture after Brontë and Gone to Earth but also appearing with Dame Judi Dench in Mrs Henderson Presents, gives her all as Fevvers. She confidently combines circus skills on trapeze and ropes, song, music and acting and, by the end, is literally breathless.

So too is her leading man, Walser. Like the anti-hero of another feathery play, Ducktastic, this man is drawn into the action from the front row of the audience. He is a New York Times journalist, conveniently born in Reykjavik like his portrayer, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, another skilled acrobat from the Icelandic Vesturport Company.

The lady's harsh life is told with irony, starting with her adoption by Lizzie, turned into a panto dame by Carl Grose, then her upbringing in a brothel and subsequent Nights at the Circus, while pursued for no real reason by Walser and a sinister wing collector, Sugar (very definitely nor business guru Alan!).

Life in the big top and its surrounding environs is tough. The famous Carney's Circus has more than just the wild animals to fear, as the head clown is off his head, delighting in jealously beating Amanda Lawrence as his sweet-voiced woman (sic) Mignon, while the puny strong man offers little comfort.

The creators of this new adaptation of what has become a cult book both have excellent pedigrees. Emma Rice is artistic director of Kneehigh, the Cornish company that recently had a National Theatre hit with Tristan and Yseult, while Tom Morris was the progenitor of Jerry Springer the Opera while at BAC and is now working at the National as well. They have also enlisted Kneehigh's regular one-man music machine, Stu Barker.

Their invention is quirky, with humour that is too often puerile but at its best when physical, thanks to the slapstick talent of the cast. The circus skills are definitely worth seeing but the burlesque is overdone with dullish acts taking up far too great a proportion of the two-and-a-half-hour-long show, at least for the taste of this reviewer.

Whilst this Nights at the Circus has its high points, none more so than when Natalia Tena manages to sing pretty well while revolving on a rope high above the stage and eventually reaching the horizontal, the novel has far more and, in this case, Angela Carter's brilliance is possibly better rendered on the page than the stage. Kneehigh and panto fans will probably vocally disagree.

"Nights at the Circus" runs until 18th February and then tours to West Yorkshire Playhouse( 21 February - 4 March), Warwick Arts Centre (7 - 11 March), Bristol Old Vic (19 March - 1 April), Theatre Royal Plymouth (4 - 8 April) and Sheffield Lyceum (11 - 15 April)

J D Atkinson reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher