Though a sense of the theatrical permeates Angela Carter’s writing, her elaborate prose doesn’t make for the easiest of transitions from the page to the stage. Fortunately Emma Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre Company have not let this deter them in the slightest. From the opening moments of this delicious adaptation, it’s clear they understand completely what is required to recreate for the theatre not just the narrative, but also the atmosphere, of this uniquely rich novel.
Necessarily abridged (with the whole Siberian end section excised) Nights At The Circus concerns Fevvers (Natalie Tena), the worlds only winged woman, a ‘Cockney Venus’ who claims not to have been born but to have been hatched from an egg. Sceptical journalist Walser (no longer American but Icelandic, due to the casting of the quite, quite magnificent Gisl rn Gardarsson in the role) arrives to write an article on her, and to, if necessary, expose her as a fraud, but he soon finds himself charmed, not just by Fevvers herself, but by the bawdy, raucous world she inhabits and ends up following her to St Petersburg where she is to top the bill in a travelling circus.
A festival of bubbles and feathers and vertical spurts of champagne, this is easily one of the most joyous pieces of theatre I have seen in far too long a time. The production has an endearingly shambolic quality (wigs tumble from heads and at one point some poor audience member gets clouted by Walser’s discarded notebook) which somehow just adds to the atmosphere.
The superb cast throw themselves into proceedings with admirable energy; singing, dancing and tumbling whilst playing multiple roles and providing their own musical accompaniment. By the end of the run they’re bound to be as black and blue as the battered waif Mignon; Gardarsson in particular is stripped, soaked, beaten and booted in the balls with painful regularity throughout the evening.
Blending elements of the circus with more traditional theatre is nothing new, but never has it been more apt, especially in the beautiful and moving aerial finale. The only false note is Fevvers herself. Natalie Tena lacks the epic charisma required of Carter’s worldly and statuesque creation – but then, to be fair, it is something of an impossible role and, while she occasionally comes across as a petulant teenager, she has a certain grace and presence. It’s a part you feel she could grow in to.
Carl Grose gives a brilliant comic performance as the maternal, man-hating Lizzie and Amanda Lawrence is also memorable as the terminally passive Mignon. The design, by Bill Mitchell and Vicki Mortimer, is simple but effective – smoke and mirrors and much more besides – again evoking the feel of Carter’s novel in its details.
Set in 1899, at the cusp of a new century, the play is not all fun and colour. The curtain opens on a tuxedoed Adjoa Andoh singing: “Die, century, die” and throughout there is sense of impending change – that the world depicted is in decline – a theme more explicitly revisited in the production’s closing moments.
This is exhilarating, ingenious theatre. Though quite long, the evening flew by, a rare sensation in recent months of over-hyped and underwhelming productions. Kneehigh’s love and understanding of the potential of the medium is evident in every scene and I’d be surprised if I see much to top Nights At The Circus this year.