Shaun McCarthy’s captivating and unusual, new play creates a disturbing world. It is a world within a world of circus magic, tawdry colour, noise and excitement, but a superficial world that fronts the reality of simmering tensions, political radicalism and conflict.
A scene from Circus Britannica at the Bike Shed, Exeter Photo: Robert Darch
Astutely drawing a parallel with a country that is also trying to balance its books, for circus owner and ringmaster Sarah hard times and economic uncertainly entail compromise. The play makes no judgments, but presents facts, skillfully juxtaposing ideas and points of view.
Live music draws audiences into designer Becky Hawkins’ colourful set where an inventively created big top becomes a close-knit, familial world. Projected images ingeniously flesh out the story, while Elizabeth Westcott’s haunting and atmospheric music, played on sax and accordion by actors Joseph Carey and Andy Kelly, moves the tale along.
Director David Lockwood’s diverse yet believable ensemble keeps this overlong play focused, as amid the clowning and conjuring each character reveals their secret.
Jenny May Morgan invests tragic Jofranka with admirable veracity, as a compelling, damaged and frightened immigrant. Sophia Thierens’ Sarah, the circus owner and ringmaster, is a multifaceted, complex character who asks few questions, but is willing to take desperate measures to keep her show on the road.
Jos Vantyler’s Stevie joins the circus with bright-eyed, youthful optimism, while Andy Kelly finds gentle comedy in endearingly mismatched clown Besnik, who risked everything to come to England.
Tension is credibly built as dissent between Joseph Carey’s morose Zoltan and Tom Sherman’s bigoted Dave reaches flashpoint, culminating in strongly choreographed violent conflict.