Walking towards the huge purple, cow-shaped tent on the South Bank which houses this year’s Udderbelly festival, I got the same feeling I would get as a child when my parents took me to the circus. A heady blend of juvenile excitement and candy floss sugar highs struck me, and it was in a state of hazy euphoria induced by this romanticised nostalgia (and possibly the heat inside a massive purple cow) that I thought about what Flown might have in store. A production originally created for the 2011 Glastonbury festival by acrobatic troupe Pirates of the Carabinas, it is billed as “irreverent and silly, bold and breathtaking,” and it delivered on its promise… up to a point.
As the audience filed in, the acrobats were already present, roaming the venue, setting up, and warming up on and around the stage area. The transient, temporary nature of the innocuous set, coupled with the relaxed attitude of the performers, gave the production a familiar, intimate air, as if they had set up their circus in a friend’s living room. In fact, as the act started, I came to realise that beforehand I had, in fact, wandered out of the loos and accidentally trailed the show’s tight-rope walker, Ellis Grover, who had been meandering and taking photographs, into the venue.
There is no denying the obvious acrobatic talents of this troupe of contemporary circus performers. I gaped as muscular Finn Jaakko Tenhunen fought gravity inside the Cyr wheel and gasped as Laura Moy flung herself around a 20 foot pole with thighs of steel which surely prove she shares DNA with Superman. Honestly, that woman climbs the Chinese Pole with more ease than I climb the stairs. Watching Barnz Munn’s skill as his partner Shaena Brandel’s counterweight whilst on the aerial hoop was almost mesmerising in itself, made all the sweeter when he pulled Shaena, still hoop-bound, in for a kiss as she finished her enchanting solo. Gwen Hales is obviously a very talented aerialist, and I was looking forward to watching her showcase her skills on the aerial silk as it is one of my favourite circus acts, but her performances never quite managed to get off the ground. She is comedically gifted, sure, but more time was spent during her solos on awkward faux-calamity than on real, impressive aerial demonstrations.
The same can be said for most of the show. There were a few laughs (mostly from Hales and Tenhunen – whose rant on the British population’s predilection for skinny jeans I rather enjoyed), but mostly the feigned tomfoolery and ineptitude in the form of crashing lighting rigs and bumped heads left me a bit cold and unnerved. Perhaps this was the troupe’s aim, to unsettle the audience – but I felt it marred what could otherwise be a fabulous display of talent, strength and agility. The non-acrobatic comedy sketches could definitely do with a bit more thought. One poor fellow had to talk into the mic with his trousers round his ankles just for a laugh. The audience clearly rooted for the performers while they were doing their acrobatic best, but I felt the rapport was diminished when the inter-act comedy skits kicked in. It just didn’t quite hit the mark.
Highlights included the ‘hula-off’ between Hales and Tenhunen and the finale, when basically everyone and everything, including a drum kit, was hurled out into and over the audience on wires. A brilliant and all too short end to what had, overall, been a very enjoyable evening, harking back to the days when we, as children, would stuff our faces with candy floss and edible bracelets under the big top in the local park. Show me the man who doesn’t want that feeling back for one evening and I will get on my ridiculously undersized bike and pedal awkwardly into the sunset.
Flown is playing at the Udderbelly Festival on the South Bank until 22 June. For more information and tickets please see the Underbelly website.