When we think of the word ‘circus’, what springs to mind? A sad looking clown on a tiny bike? Acrobats flying around a big top in bejewelled costumes? Bearded ladies? Elephants on podiums? Well there isn’t a whiff of that at this year’s CircusFest, and certainly not at The Bekkrell Effect. Performed by French Groupe Bekkrell, their show is apparently inspired by Henri Becquerel’s (nope, me neither) discovery of radioactivity, and the company are said to have “created an unstable universe of perpetual movement where matter decays and bonds disintegrate.” Somewhat predictably, I don’t know much about physics, so I couldn’t really tell you if the above statement is true, but it sounds fancy.

The four performers arrive on stage dressed quite bizarrely in suits, skirts and blazers, and performing weird little dystopian marches, before launching into a routine somewhere between physical comedy and acrobatics. All the mechanics of the show, setting up ropes and clips and stands for example, is done by the girls themselves. To see the technicality that goes into such a thing is impressive, and to see the performers doing it alone is admirable. The visual aspect of the ropes and joints, seesaws and pullies, gives it a rustic essence. It even looks messy, but the girls know exactly where everything should be, and it all comes together to help them perform marvellous stunts.

The show is undeniably physically impressive; the girls walk tightropes, climb poles, and fling them selves through the air and scale up and down ropes. It’s also surprisingly funny, with a Mr Bean-style humour as they stomp around, grumbling and yelling at each other incoherently through their mouth guards. Unfortunately, the conceptual aspect of the piece was mostly lost on me. As previously mentioned, I know diddlysquat about theoretical physics, and so any nods to Becquerel would have gone unnoticed by me, but nevertheless they are enchanting to watch. It’s almost hypnotic, the way they move abstractly and with power.

If you’re looking for a traditional circus act, then The Bekkrell Effect isn’t for you. There are no gleaming smiling faces, there is no flying through the air effortlessly. The girls sweat and grunt and go red in the face, but their hard work is appreciated. They put on a stunning show, viscerally beautiful and aided by a warm wash of light and the archaic charm of the Roundhouse. Avant-garde and interpretational, while I didn’t always get it, I know I liked it.

The Bekkrell Effect played at the Roundhouse until 21 April as part of CircusFest

Photo: Massao Mascaro