Originally published on Exeunt
Cirque Alfonse bring a sense of nostalgia to the London Wonderground this summer. Barbu, a critically acclaimed show that first came to British shores in 2015 for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, harks back to simpler times, a time of fairgrounds and frolicking, of etiquette and eccentricity. The video projections of Frédéric Barrette surround the circus tent with fields and flowers, the musical compositions of André Gagné and David Simard are thick with celtic, folk undertones. The performers work with roller skates resembling models from the late 19th and early 20th century; they juggle with handkerchiefs and straw hats and batons; they somersault and tumble onto crash mats after being launched from see-saws. Yet each resembles the hipster chic of today, the latest in bearded gentrification to hit the Spiegeltent. The music combines the traditional with electro beats, heavy bass lines and synthesised strings. Welcome to fusion circus, one that crashes together vintage and technology, butch aesthetics and camp cabaret.
There is always a risk in fusion, and its one that Barbu falls foul of more often than not. This is a show that is particularly stylised but equally one of some confusion, which finds the actual acrobatic and circus trickery wanting. Given the plethora of troupes to grace the Wonderground stage, the need to stand out is understandable; the audiences’ expectations to be astounded and impressed has never been higher. The 2016 season on at London’s Southbank festivals alone brings productions by Circa and Tumble Circus to the stage, along with the Olivier-award winning La Soiree that returns to the West End later this year. But whilst concept is key, so is content. Ultimately a memorable performance will explode with originality whilst being underpinned by technically exceptional acrobatic, balancing and aerial acts. It is in this that Barbu falls short.
Musically this production achieves that which makes a fusion theme greater than the sum of its parts. A careful consideration between DJ and live music is apparent here; Gagné and Simard update traditional folk song but are still respectful of their background and history. The live vocals that punctuate the synthesised instrumentation serve to make the music the star of the show. This is a double-edged sword however, since the music exposes the flaws in what should be the main attraction of Barbu. This isn’t to say that the circus isn’t competent and varied, but it doesn’t provide a distinctive enough technical edge to match the level of that which accompanies it.
The breadth of acts that the show compiles into 75 minutes showcases the potential skill that all its performers clearly have at their fingertips. The aerial hoop artist glides above the stage with serenity and grace, and the balancing acts highlight an intrinsic appreciation that each individual has of their team members. The Cirque Alfonse collective operates in unison, each member contributing to add colour to the overall painting. Even when the show descends into the theatrical equivalent of an acid trip, complete with 70s glitter ball costumes, pole dancing and homoerotic scenes, the performers retain their chemistry, trust and connections. The initial concept tends to stray at this point into a seedy cabaret display; overly familiar winks to the audience and the shedding of clothes drag the production firmly away from its traditional roots. Conceptually this choice is confused, an additional element to the mix that doesn’t marry well with the hipster chic and celtic fusion that precedes this portion; another example of competence but not of consistency.
Barbu is on until 25th September 2016. Click here for more details.