Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror

Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard with music by Charles Hazlewood
Extraordinary Bodies, Bristol Old Vic and Theatre Royal Plymouth
The Lowry, Salford

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror Credit: Paul Blakemore
Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror Credit: Paul Blakemore
Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror Credit: Paul Blakemore
Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror Credit: Paul Blakemore
Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror Credit: Paul Blakemore
Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror Credit: Paul Blakemore

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror is a large-scale collaboration between D/deaf, disabled, and non-disabled artists and creators. It also has an alarming number of trigger warnings suggesting a degree of concern about whether the audience might take offence at the subject matter. The most surprising feature, is, however, that despite live acrobatics it is classified as a scripted musical rather than a circus.

Circuses have a tradition of being run by, and featuring, members of dispossessed communities including disabled people. But in 1933 Brandenburg, the ruling Nazi party is becoming increasingly hostile to those not part of the Aryan race. Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle) has, therefore, picked a poor time to renounce his profession as chemist and pursue his vocation as a circus acrobat.

The Ringmaster (Garry Robson) of Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror takes what he regards as a pragmatic approach to ensure the survival of the circus and looks the other way as the regime cracks down on minorities. But his blunt, unsympathetic attitude alienates his son Peter (Tilly Lee-Kronick) to the extent he betrays his beliefs and denies his sexual identity by joining the brownshirts. Meanwhile, Gerhard’s sister Dr Margot Hoche (Mirabelle Gremaud) has begun a programme of eugenics—the selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations—and plans to sterilise members of the circus.

Director Claire Hodgson captures the busy chaos and bustle of a working circus as well as the occasionally snide attitude of the performers. As one character is centre-stage, another is juggling in the background, or a contortionist is twisting into painful poses. There is the awkward sense of acts knowing they are being judged (and occasionally mocked outright) by their peers.

As a practical demonstration of inclusivity and celebration of diversity, Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror cannot be faulted. Disabled people perform incredible acrobatic feats. Songs are performed in British Sign Language before being sung. On occasion, however, the progressive approach causes confusion. As Peter is played by a female actor, the impact of his closeted sexuality is obscured and, in the period when the play is set, individuals were not referred to by the pronoun ‘they’.

Authors Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard borrow from other well-known shows set in the period. The final scene is reminiscent of The Sound of Music and there is a shameless effort to copy the song "Tomorrow Belongs To Me".

The structure of the play is uneven. The first act is very much built around the acrobatic performances of the cast with the plot a secondary consideration. Act one becomes, therefore, a bit of a soap opera with little tension—the threatening eugenics subplot does not occur until well into the second half. Focussing upon fewer incidents rather than including so many might have generated greater emotional impact.

The description of the show as a ‘musical’ is not entirely accurate. There are plenty of pulsing electronic instrumental numbers but not as many songs as one might expect. This may be a blessing in disguise as the lyrics are not memorable and the cast are physical performers rather than polished singers. The show is at its best, therefore, when allowing the cast to communicate non-verbally; the act one aerial duet between Jonny Leitch and Tilly Lee-Kronick achingly draws out the desperation of the characters to make a connection.

Although the approach taken in Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror is inspirational, at present the show has scope for further development.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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