Recently, in Walking the Chains, a show about the construction of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, I saw a man walk on top of a barrel. Quite nonchalantly and not as part of the main performance. This was just a between-the-scenes thing. Later there were a couple of women up ropes pretending to be fireworks, spinning around and around and…well, ladies and gentleman, this confirmed for me a sneaking suspicion I have had for a while: that the best theatre in Bristol is happening at Circomedia.
For those who do not know, Circomedia is both a centre for learning contemporary circus skills and physical theatre, and a venue for both their own shows and touring ones. To make things even better their main performance venue – where Beta Testing was staged – is in a large Georgian church. The imposing pillars of the high-ceilinged building handsomely frame the stage and the most interesting fact I know about it (thanks to Wikipedia) is that it is still consecrated (because God’s angels are all acrobats). Circomedia is also unique to Bristol, which makes including its shows in a summary of the Bristol performing arts scene particularly worthwhile.
Beta Testing in the current show of the very charismatic Circus Geeks – Arron Sparks, Jon Udry and Matt Pang (complete with live baby from the audience that at one point joined them on stage). It discusses jugglers and juggling – why people do it, what other people think of them and the internal world of juggling itself, including its lexicon. In between the performances, the three men chat away to the audience and to themselves about, essentially, throwing and catching things in imaginative and complicated ways. To aid their discussion they have graphs, video clips and a montage of voices.
At the beginning they talk about telling people what they do for a living. The uncomfortable conversation in which they should be able to proudly declare they do one of the world’s coolest jobs, yet end up feeling embarrassed and wishing they had answered “Chartered Accountant” to the question instead. It’s a situation most people who do something that could be named ‘creative’ are familiar with. “Working in finance” is often granted less circumspection than “potter”, even though the latter does less damage and results in more useful objects being created. Answering “writer” is normally a good way to witness how different people express the word “wanker” in a facial expression.
The affability of the performers and their humour propels the show through a longish sketch of attempting to juggle ten rings and bring them all down around Arron’s neck. When they are finally successful and all ten rings are yoking his head, the audience – throughout the performance clapping and cheering in a way not usually expressed in a theatre during a show – erupt into applause. Fittingly for the surrounding, I prayed with all my life for those rings to end up where they did. Why is this so engrossing? I have no idea.
But unmistakably it is and in a final change of tone to the clowning around, the evening ends with a splitting of reality between a projection screen and the real-time performance happening behind it. Glow in the dark juggling balls dance around like little solar planets and you see why people want to do this for a living, because it is beautiful and it is fun.