I try not to read anything about a show until after I see it, so that I don’t bring any judgements or expectations into the auditorium with me, and also because I imagine a lot of children don’t, so it’s one way to get that bit closer to their experience. When the written description of the show and what (I thought) I saw on stage don’t quite marry, I wonder – is that my problem? Or the company’s? And that’s what I’m grappling with today, having just seen Race Horse Company’s contemporary circus performance Around.
A mismatch between blurb and show isn’t uncommon, and is of course affected by the long-term development process that productions can go through. Often blurbs have to be written and tour dates secured before funding applications can be submitted and the show can actually get made, so by the time it appears on stage, published descriptions can be out of date and a little misleading. The question is whether this matters – and I’m not certain that it does – but what I do know is that the blurb/show disparity strikes me most commonly when I’ve found a show unsatisfying. Having entered the theatre with an open mind and left somewhat disappointed, reading the stated ambitions of the makers can compound the feeling of disappointment, bringing home the gap between intention and achievement.
Around starts with a performing monkey, sat strumming a guitar, who disappears backstage after following a trail of bananas, only to be replaced by a giant guitar-playing banana. So far, so surreal. This, it seemed to me, set the tone for what was basically an off-the-wall circus sketch show. Each episode features at least one circus skill, from juggling to clowning to acrobatics, explored in a kooky way. In a nod to traditional circus’s use of live animals, the performers ride around on hobby horses, who are then tended to throughout the show; at the end of one section, a prop is picked up only for a little (presumably robot?) hamster in a wheel to whizz out and all across the stage; an acrobat dressed from head to toe in a snakeskin leotard is lured out of her box to the sound of panpipes. Then there’s the diver in a full Victorian bathing costume and flippers, who dives through bubbles and eventually into a bucket, with water nowhere to be seen.
The description of the show on the Jacksons Lane website says: “Arriving with a caravan of hobby horses, two acrobats transform an empty stage into a charming circus ring with the help of a band of musicians.” The description on the company’s website says Around “is about the life of a small circus group, their mutual relations and overcoming difficulties through co-operation. Plunging headfirst into mishaps, this circus makes the impossible possible.” I can’t really align either of these blurbs with the show I saw; Around makes more sense to me as brief, oddball moments of spectacle. It has flashes of zany fun, but measured against the blurbs above, it falls short.
What I think I saw isn’t what was described, and perhaps isn’t what the performers think they did. Whilst in some ways this is always the case with theatre, it felt to be a particular issue here. The blurbs suggest that Race Horse Company believe they have offered some sense of narrative, when the audience around me seemed to need more storyline to understand what was happening. Appreciating the feats and spectacle whilst simultaneously wondering what was going on, the sounds running through the auditorium alternated between ‘woah!’ and ‘why?’.
It’s impossible to say whether I saw what I was supposed to, and it’s very difficult to say whether the performers achieved what they set out to. When blurbs and descriptions are all we really have as evidence of intention, they can become cruel yardsticks by which to measure a show.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.