Emma Sergeant, of award-winning circus company Casus, brings her one-woman show Jerk to the Brighton Fringe this week. A piece of circus theatre that offers up the tantalising premise of a “woman on the edge” and her journey to who knows where, Jerk is a show about remembering and remembrance. Grace relives each moment of the last day of her life and analyses the events leading up to it. The audience are first given a list of details about Jerk’s protagonist, from the perspective of the people who knew her. Grace is tidy, she is well presented; she dresses well and likes shepherd’s pie from the mall at Christmas. Her mother is dead. She has an ambitious brother.
But these are projections, these are the details that other people will tell you about Grace. What Grace tells us is quite different. Yes, she likes to eat shepherd’s pie at the mall but she also likes to snort coke in the toilets, especially at Christmas. She leaves dirty dishes in the sink at night, will eat a whole tube of Pringles in a single sitting and likes danger. She is a mother. She gave up her twins to focus on her career. She has no career.
Grace’s last few moments of life weren’t anything special: she was just walking down the street, until a series of small distractions leads her into the middle of the road. She turns and sees a lot of truck, very close, very big. The details of these events are hashed out in front of us in a series of crashing, wheeling tumbles. Sergeant smacks into the floor over and over and over, in a series of thuds and wallops that she somehow makes graceful. After the crash, Grace’s body is mangled and contorted through the smallest of hoops. She then elevates herself to a higher plane through a series of hand-balances, all of which are executed with precision and power. Jerk is a piece that utilises many forms of circus art: tumbling, hand-balancing, aerial work, clowning and even the odd bit of stunt work. Sergeant delivers all of this skilfully and makes interesting artistic choices with each form. I personally like to see a bit of realism in aerial and balancing work, with not too many pointy toes and poses. Choosing to make the audience feel each slam into the floor and each contortion in the air gives us a chance to empathise with the character and really feel what Grace is going through. This at times makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it is never taken too far. What’s more, the choice of circus arts works well to bring out key elements of the narrative and drive the story forward.
There’s also a good balance between the misery and morbidity of a life taken too soon and the humorous aspects of the events leading up to Grace’s death. A highlight of the show is the story of how Grace met her paramour Gil, and how she tried to tempt him to flirt with her, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Aaron. Sergeant presents us with a large nail and a un-inflated balloon; the nail represents Aaron and the balloon, Gill. She chooses Gill, the balloon, and stuffs him into her mouth in a mock seductive manner before then passing the balloon through her nasal cavity and back out of her mouth. I laughed so much I actually wept. That may however be more of a testament to my sick sense of humour than anything else, but nevertheless it tickled me. Sergeant also treats audience members to the human blockhead trick (putting a nail up your nose), combined with a frenetic tumbling sequence. These rather gruelling moments are balanced with a touching monologue about what Grace’s life could have been, delivered whilst taking pictures of audience members and sitting on their laps.
Jerk is a pleasure to behold: touching and humorous but also dark, uncomfortable and diverting. My only critique is that the first few sequences feel slow and overly repetitive compared with the second half. I also found the soundscape at the beginning and the crackling mic off-putting, but perhaps that is the point.
If you like your circus theatre a bit off-centre and don’t mind being ever so slightly grossed out, this is for you. Grace, although evidently a total jerk, is such an endearing character: I left the theatre pleased to have met her.
Jerk played at the Spiegeltent as part of the Brighton Fringe. For more information see the Brighton Fringe website.