Nights at the Circus, adapted from Angela Carter’s novel by Sarah-Jane Moloney and director Steve Green, is – like Fourth Monkey’s original script for The Elephant Man – an ambitious story to tackle. It sprawls across countries and scales heights, but in the more than capable hands of Fourth Monkey, they take us on an epic journey.
Nights at the Circus follows reporter Jack Walser (Scott McGarrick) as he travels and trains to become a clown with Colonel Kerney’s circus (James Bryant, who has the most adorable puppet pig on his arm). Within the circus are several narratives: a love story between Sophie Fevvers (Shala Isis) and Jack, Buffo the clown (Reuben Beau-Davies) turning homicidal, and the triangle between the Strong Man, Samson, Mignon and tiger tamer Princess. On top of all this their train to Siberia crashes, the circus disperses and Jack contracts amnesia. It’s a wonder that they can get through all this in just an hour and fifteen minutes, but this really is a wonderful piece of storytelling from Fourth Monkey.
The means of telling said story are diverse; Chloe Rodman’s animations are used to illustrate Sophie’s story and reflect how her life has been controlled by everyone around her until joining the circus. These animations are childish and yet strangely disquieting in the awkward way the doll-like characters move. The clowns steal the show with their mime humour and accompany themselves on guitar, thereby driving their scenes forward and creating a sinister atmosphere around them. Beau-Davies has startlingly crazed eyes as Buffo and the colourful make up on their sad and vicious faces reminds you why so many people are afraid of clowns.
There are also some impressive physical performances as an array of apes and tigers running wild around the circus. There’s a comedic holding of breath each time the two tigers run across the stage, and all these detailed aspects of the performance contribute to the presentation of a fantastical story that is so easy to immerse yourself in. Isis is hilariously tacky but big hearted as Sophie Fevvers, whilst McGarrick is awkward as awkward can be; together they are the sweetest pair and their quirky characters are exemplary leads for this magical play.
It’s funny how a few battered suitcases and the right costumes can transform a stage into a travelling circus. Fourth Monkey is now established as a company that’s most definitely carried by the young talent of tomorrow, and indeed every performance is impressive and mature. Yet I do feel the aesthetics surrounding this production do elevate this play to become something of a magical experience. Nights at the Circus is an absolutely spotless adaptation from Fourth Monkey.
***** – 5/5 stars
Nights at the Circus is playing at theSpace on Niddry Street until 24 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival.