Pirates of the Carabina: Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine – Roundhouse, London

Director: James Williams 

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Relentless. Unstoppable. The title of Pirates of the Carabina’s new show, a sequel to 2011’s Flown, suggests a never-ending supply of circus routines. Sure, there may be solo numbers and set-piece ensemble routines – what circus show has not? – but there will be a fluidity to the overall work, presenting a couple of hours of acrobatics and clowning that seem relentless and feel unstoppable.

That is not the impression one gets when actually watching. True, the music – performed live by a band which includes several of the circus performers, as well as a choir tucked away on a Roundhouse balcony – offers a sense of that fluidity, especially in the frequent dreamlike numbers which often see the pianist and piano rise slowly above the stage.

But elsewhere on stage, the circus sketches feel just as discrete from one another as any other show. Relentless? Unstoppable? Not really. Entertaining? Now that’s a different matter.

Pirates of the Carabina’s staging, designed by rigger and performer Barnz Munn, places an emphasis on the mechanical enhancements that allow acrobats to display their talents to great effect. Starting with a slender, rotating tower that allows performers to pose on it, to swing from it, to circle it like high-flying carousel horses, we start to see the emergence of the key players’ personas. We also get a sense of the human imbalance in contrast to the machine: five people hanging off the four sides of the tower makes the performance just that little bit off-kilter. Machines help us, the imbalance tells us, but circus is not clinically mechanical.

One of the standout performers is hoop specialist Shaena Brandel. Her aviator goggles, satin jumpsuit and 1920s bob convey the air of an Amelia Earhart, or possibly the most scandalously interesting suspect in an Agatha Christie thriller. With Munn on counterweight, her aerial work becomes more dynamic than one has come to expect from the hoop, adding in vertical velocity to the rigours of lithe choreography.

The use of counterweights to drastically, often dramatically, change equipment height is an innovation that is shared by Eric McGill’s trapeze work. Perhaps even more than with Brandel’s hoop, the movement of the trapeze up and downplays into McGill’s routine, allowing him to exploit the momentum of the moving equipment in a thrilling sequence of leaps and twists.

McGill also contributes to a number of clowning sequences, most notably with Ellis Grover’s stringbean-thin hipster. Initially, at least, Grover seems to be underused, his largest contribution being to add rhythm to a musical number by use of an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. But it is in the opening of Act II, where his high wire skills first emerge, that his true entertainment value becomes unlocked.

The routine – which, like much of Grover’s interactions, start and end with a sense almost of bullying by McGill’s besuited character – is presented as one of indecision and inexperience, all nervous jitters and with Grover’s long, thin legs getting ties up with his balance pole. Such studied amateurism is, of course, the mark of the professional, and we buy into the performance while readily conceding the conceit.

Grover surpasses himself later on, as he swaps the high wire rope for walking across the stage on the tops of a row of upright wine and champagne bottles. It’s a smaller scale performance than many of those within Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, and all the more impressive for that.

Elsewhere, many of the clowning routines have less of a sense of obvious storytelling to them than the performers seem to imply. Several numbers fade away in preparation for the next, without much in the way of the interconnectedness one would hope for from an unstoppable human machine.

And save for a few brief solo numbers, Pirates of the Carabina have produced a show of interesting, but rarely exciting, routines. Entertaining it may be, but relentless and unstoppable? Hardly.

Continues until April 15. | Image: Contributed

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