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Hugh Wooldridge

Review: BLACK CAT: BOHEMIA at The Underbelly Festival on London’s Southbank

Black Cat Bohemia In spite of the small size of the venue, the quality of the Black Cat: Bohemia circus skills is great. And at 70 minutes, this is a really fun way to spend part of an evening. Recommended.

For many years, it was a rite of passage for Londoners to make a Christmas visit to the Bertram Mills Circus in Olympia.

There one would see daring acrobats and trapeze acts, tightrope walkers, illusionists, trick-cyclists, jugglers, a ringmaster in tails with a gaggle of clowns, and the leading animal acts of the day – including high-stepping Liberty horses and lions, tigers and elephants. All terribly non-PC nowadays. But an unforgettable memory from a long-gone era. For 250 years, circus crossed borders and had worldwide popularity. And so that acts could travel globally from one venue to another and slot in easily, each circus ring was the same diameter – 42 feet. In the USSR, circus even became a state-sponsored, magnificently funded, entertainment/sport. And then in the 1960s, owing to the advent of variety shows on television, circus in the UK all but died.

Forty years ago, using contemporary theatre techniques and with no animals, the Nouveau Cirque was championed in the UK by Victoria Chaplin and her Le Cirque Imaginaire; and then a decade or so later by Cirque du Soleil – who have by now re-introduced nearly 100 million people all over the world to artistic acts of bravery and precision; presented in a theatrical way and accompanied by live music. This is how we see circus today.

In its tiny way, Black Cat: Bohemia harnesses the very best of modern circus in a spiegeltent, which is practically the same dimension as the show ring in a traditional circus. Lead by Danger K (Katharine Arnold, the beautiful aerialist and circus choreographer who worked on the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics and who is currently Eva Green’s double in the Tim Burton film, Dumbo) and the show’s director, Sean Kempton, a cast of eight combine and individually entertain to the appreciative audience.

On the night I attended, one of the performers, Leon Fagemi, was injured, so there were fewer items than had been planned. But such was the skill of all involved, on- and off-stage, that the audience did not know.

The MC, Miss Frisky (Lara Corcoran, one half of cabaret favourites, Frisky and Mannish) is a ‘Woman Dressed as a Man Dressed as a Woman’ and is wonderfully skilled. Her opening monologue about Bohemia with some pretty naff Linnebach projections was a bit of a worry, but as soon as she could interact with the audience à la Dame Edna Everage, she was very funny indeed. Picking mercilessly on a couple of game souls in the audience – George and Richard. It might have been nice to have acknowledged them in the curtain call.

Charlotte Sullivan and Nicolas Jelmoni, who have both appeared in Pippin on Broadway and with Cirque du Soleil, are two fiercely brave new recruits, showcasing extraordinary hand-to-hand acrobatics. They were cheered to the rafters.

The Knave (LJ Marles) demonstrates some superb work with straps, Missy Fatale (Hayley Harvey-Gomez) provides an incendiary flame display, and I particularly liked Slippin’ Jo (Jo Moss) who, apart from giving my neighbour a pre-show neck massage as the audience entered, then went on to give a virtuoso display of what a man can do with the Cyr wheel – a giant hoop. His act, requiring extraordinary invention, dedication and expertise. An unusual recent graduate from RADA.

Most of the high-octane music is live and is lead and performed by James Keay and his band; the company are the singers. And they sound good. The simple and effective lighting is by Malcolm Rippeth.