Circus Klezmer @ Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

cast list
Adrian Schvarstein, Teresa San Juan Gonzalez, Emiliano Sanchez, Cristina Sole, Joan Catala, Petra Rochau, Rebecca Macauley, Nigel Haywood, Angel Estevez

directed by
Adrian Schvarstein
The notice on the door of the Purcell Room warned that there would be ‘audience participation.’

Now these are words that are guaranteed to make me feel apprehensive; the idea of being dragged on stage during a production and made to stand in front of a sea of eyes is really, really not one I relish.

But I needn’t have worried, for while a couple of people were indeed coaxed from their seats and made to participate, it was done in a very warm and entertaining way; the people they picked on were made to feel like the stars of the show, rather than the butt of a joke.
Part of the 2009 London International Mime Festival, Circus Klezmer is the work of a Spanish company of circus performers. The show is set in an Eastern European village in the early days of the 20th century. There is to be a wedding and the villagers are preparing themselves for it – and that’s all there is in terms of narrative. The village setting provides a backdrop to a string of near wordless scenes featuring acrobatics, juggling and physical comedy, all set to klezmer music played by onstage musicians.

Klezmer originated in such villages; it’s celebratory music, the stuff of weddings and feasts. This is music made for drinking and dancing; it’s riotous, uplifting and difficult to listen to without tapping your feet. Often people in the audience couldn’t resist clapping along, whether encouraged to or not.

Unlike some circus shows, this was not about grand spectacle or awe-inducing stunts, yet it was somehow even more delightful for its simplicity. And that’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of visually exciting business going on, for there was. In one scene the bride-to-be dangles from twin lengths of white cloth, twirling above the stage; in another the men of the village get drunk together, passing bottles and glasses between each other with dizzying speed; later, a married couple’s argument is played out as a kind of aggressive dance that involves them running at one another and latching together. And, in one of the funniest moments of the production, a shrewish neighbourhood woman (played by Cristina Sole) performs a fantastically un-erotic striptease, winking coquettishly at a chap in the audience as she awkwardly disrobes.

The production’s director, Adrian Schvarstein, plays the village idiot, in ragged trousers and a battered hat, a bumbling figure who flirts with women in the front row and manages to lose the wedding rings. His performance, as with the rest of the cast, is bang on, the comic timing immaculate, but it’s the gentle colouring in of character that gives the show its heart and binds everything together so successfully.

And what of the audience participation? Well, even as people were queuing to enter the theatre, the cast were wandering around, shaking hands and welcoming us, as you would guests at a wedding, as well as distributing sweets that would come in useful at the end. Later, once the show was underway, they did indeed pull a few people up on stage to assist in various scenes. One man had his low-riding trousers disapprovingly tugged up and another was handed a violin and made an impromptu extra member of the four-piece band. It was all good-humoured and the inclusion of the audience added to the celebratory feel of the piece.

This is a joyous bit of theatre, performed with energy and skill. The sets may be rickety and the company small, but it is gloriously good fun to watch. Lovely stuff.

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