Footsbarn began nearly forty years ago in Cornwall and has had its permanent base in France for half that time so that this British company is now half French . For this latest show in its tent theatre it has also been joined by a gypsy horse circus, the Cirque Werdyn, to create a production that continues the company's style of anarchic playfulness.
Based on an original idea by Pierre Ryland and developed by Footsbarn, Les Fusains and CirqueWerdyn, it begins in near darkness with a snowfall and a wind . A couple of tramps out in the cold warm up with a drink and a cigarette. A bare bulb in the centre of the circus ring adds to the bleakness and its dazzle makes it even more difficult to see what is going on and you wonder. You wonder just how long they can drag this out, for it is not a lively opening to grab the youngsters in the audience but you can't help thinking Beckett: this company have a background of doing their own versions of the classics and later we'll meet a farmer who delights in spouting Shakespeare.
The Godot-like tramps reinvent themselves in formal black as funeral directors. With the tolling of a bell a horse-drawn hearse is driven in. A coffin is taken from it and, wreath-crowned, set up in the circus ring. One by one musicians arrive playing their instruments: a bassoonist, a cellist, a violinist and a singer, and we begin the funeral of a famous composer which forms most of the show. On a cymbal class his spirit appears as a white bust.
It is a funeral that is constantly interrupted. A white horse canters in (excuse for an extended turd joke); a farmer and his sister come in on a noisy tractor - they want to use the same place to hold a gypsy wedding; a tabby cat runs in over the coffin and out again, a cockerel flies in and takes up a place presiding on the coffin,. Soon the horse is back eating the wreath, a football is kicked on, a tiny pony enters, then the farmer with a (glove puppet) cockatoo, and the farmer's sister brings in a pair of (stuffed) rabbits that will become the subject of a running joke.
The wedding party claim half the circus ring. A string of bunting divides the pessimists (funeral) who think a wine bottle is half-empty form the optimists (wedding) who think it is half-full - and the optimists in the audience, meanwhile we are getting an equestrian display. Display indeed at the press performance with the white horse, despite the bridal veil he entered in, leaving us in no doubt he was a stallion, though I don't that lesson in sexual anatomy was part of his training. Complex riding in a tight circus ring and knife juggling on horseback then lead up to the lively gypsy wedding.
Quite how a mock double execution fitted in or why we all end up setting sail in Noah's Ark only Footbarn's odd logic could explain; this is a show of contrasts and juxtapositions. There is a reason for that slow opening: it makes the rest seem faster despite the fact that scenes are stretched by delivering information in both French and English. That it works relies heavily on the performers' conviction that the audience is going to like them - and we do because of their childlike confidence. Nevertheless it is the horses and other animals that, perhaps inevitably, provide the greatest interest - apart, that is, for one routine which demonstrates the theatrical effectiveness of being simple. The coming flood is introduced by a man playing a glass with his finger on the rim (and what a loud noise it makes) while another beats a rhythm on a drum. They then pour water on the drum and continue, the note of the drum changing and water splashing high into the air at each beat until there is none left. Flatly described it is nothing but performed it is theatre magic. That is why this company has gone on touring the world for nearly forty years.
Continues at Victoria Park E4 until 4th July, then Theatre Carré, Amsterdam, 9th- 24th July; Carruan Farm Centre, Polzeath, Cornwall, 31st July - 14th August 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton