Paul Westbrook was raised in Harrow, achieved an MA Classical Acting at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama – then ran away to the circus.
Not just any old circus, but a sexy one from Down Under.
And now he’s back as one of the six-strong company of performers in Rouge, a gorgeously acrobatic and gender fluid adult show that is thrilling Fringe audiences at the Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows.
His journey has been about more than physical distance, it’s been into a world that has fun subverting gender norms and turns assumptions on their heads.
Paul describes the end result as “perfectly formed queer performance” and “like a classy Berlin club, but with a lot less clothes”.
Andthere is a sprinkling of gender politics in amongst the tinsel.
More than simply being a circus of spectacle it entices audiences into a world of the unexpected and invites them to think “that’s interesting, why not?”
Paul’s own burlesque begins to the sound of Big Spender then switches to a hip hop beat. Some particularly saucy performances take place to the accompaniment of operatic arias from acclaimed soprano Issie Hart – whose work has been described by The Guardian as having “radical, transgressive chic”.
Hart’s route into circus has been as part of her search for new and invigorating roles – all too often the female characters in opera die part way through or are shuffled off into madness or marriage.
Some of the other performers have also entered Rouge from unexpected angles. Jessie McKibbin was raised in a religious household only to end up in a show that vigorously celebrates sex.
One feature of Rouge is The Sexy Lamp. It’s an unusual take on The Sexy Lamp Test (a bit like the Bechdel Test) which looks at whether you could replace a female character in a performance without making a difference to the plot development.
In this case the lamp is waiting for someone to discover her and in the waiting finds a very vibrant sexual energy and agency all her own.
Paul’s love of dance, a pleasure in challenging perceptions and an astonishing capacity for athletic performance while wearing high heels made him a natural for Rouge.
He says: “The show is such a joy, the way it plays with gender roles. We may start off traditionally with acrobatics where the men lift the women, but after a while we switch that round. Then there are a couple of big guys who seem very straight and narrow, but by the end we are all interacting in very different ways – some of it quite homoerotic.
“One of the reasons why it works is because we all get on so well and are very comfortable with each other – and we are exploring issue which actually matter a lot to all of us.”
A thread that runs through the show is of consent and respect. That applies to the way the performers interact with each other – and very much in the audience participation, which aims to leave people with a warm glow and never a sense that they have been misused.
Paul says: “We’ve let it marinade for a couple of years now, and it’s developed into a really big, strong show. So it’s great for me to be coming back to the UK as part of something I am really proud of.”
- Tickets and information here.
- After the Fringe, Rouge transfers to the Underbelly Festival Southbank http://www.underbellyfestival.com/whats-on/rouge.