Writers: Vincent Dubé, Yohann Trépanier, Raphaël Dubé, Maxim Laurin, Ugo Dario, Frédéric Lebrasseur
Director: Vincent Dubé
Quebec-based circus company Machine de Cirque’s debut show, 2015’s self-titled Machine de Cirque, opens in some kind of urban workshop, dust sheets covering a three-storey scaffolding tower.
As the performers each bring on salvaged pieces of junk, musician Frédéric Labrasseur constructs a percussive soundtrack from found materials. The fear that this may turn out to be a slightly fancier version of Stomp is quickly unfounded, though, as the five acrobats use a teeter-totter to fling each other to the top of the scaffolding structure.
No laws of physics are being broken, of course, but the sight of a man being propelled into the air and delicately landing on such a high platform as if stepping off a cloud may cause one to doubt Newton’s laws of gravity. Such feats are performed not once, but multiple times, each with slightly different techniques, using the scaffold structure’s moving platforms to increase the stakes with each repetition.
The camaraderie between the performers provides some light-natured jocularity, most notably in the group’s conflicts with Lebrasseur, who tends to adopt the patrician role of a senior workshop manager frustrated at his young charges’ mucking about. Just as that conceit begins to irritate, though, it is dropped, allowing the humour to come from combining the accomplished circus skills with a fair degree of clowning.
Each of the five circus performers gets a chance to showcase some of their own skills. Perhaps the most notable of these is also one of the first, as Guillaume Larouche illustrates some superb trapeze skills. Starting out as accomplished if anodyne work, the comedy starts when whoever was providing the counterweight to the ropes holding up the trapeze disappears, and Larouche has to try and hoist himself up. The attempt to keep himself from crashing to the floor without getting tangled up in ropes mixes humour and acrobatic excellence in equal measure. It’s a bravura performance that sets the standard for the rest.
Another set piece sees Thibault Macé perform a series of balancing tricks while riding a bicycle in circles around the stage. Whether it’s performing one handed wheelies, balancing on one side of the bike or performing handstands on the handlebars, the skill is undeniable. The segment perhaps overstays its welcome, especially as it’s lighter on the comedy than some other elements, but Macé’s technical, artistic and athletic proficiency is never in doubt.
Less successful is a sequence in which a member of the audience is walked through a sequence in which she must go on a mimed “date” with one performer while the others take on roles of the objects they encounter – from restaurant chairs and tables to cinema seats and a motorbike. The segment carries neither the acrobatic skill nor the comedic clowning necessary to engage the interest; nor does its inclusion fit into the show’s narrative in a cohesive way.
Mind you, there are other, successful, elements which don’t really fit into a narrative either. A thunderstorm (achieved with excellent lighting design by Bruno Matte) prompts the performers to strip naked for some reason. With only bath towels to protect their modesty, a number of tricks are employed, each risking one of the performers baring all to the audience.
A two-man version of the towel dance was performed by members of the nascent circus company on the French version of Britain’s Got Talent back in 2014. This expanded version, featuring all five performers, goes even further, while still remaining to remain family friendly. In its teasing of male nudity but fear of exposure, though, it’s simultaneously the gayest and the most avowedly heterosexual thing on the London stage right now.
The acrobats do get dressed again for the show’s climactic routines. Some impressive tumbling work through a series of hoops, getting ever smaller and higher, brings the work closer to conventional circus acrobatics. The same is true for the final set piece, as the teeter-totter from the opening sequence is brought out from under the scaffolding, for a downstage demonstration of the best that Canada’s rich history of circus performers has to offer.
As with all the routines in the show, there are some occasional slips, which although never dangerous do help demonstrate the skill required to perform such acrobatics as well, and as enjoyably, as they are here. The Machine de Cirque company deserves to become a household name in the UK, and this show is the perfect launchpad.
Continues until 11 June 2022