Brighton Year-Round 2023
Set in a circus in Germany in 1933, this musical play co-written by Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard, with music by Charles Hazlewood, tackles big issues. The Nazi’s have already come for the Jews. Now they are coming for the physically impaired and the “feeble-minded”.
Initially a safe hiding place for misfits (or “freaks”), Waldo’s (Garry Robson) circus is now under scrutiny. As the net of persecution closes in, betrayal and divided loyalties increase. Yet as well as reminding us of the shocking way that people can behave towards others, especially those who are different, this production showcases the magnificence of the human body in all its forms. The human spirit is celebrated too, with stories of resilience and love shining through against all the odds.
Ambitiously billed as a “large-scale collaboration between D/deaf, disabled and non-disabled artists and creators” it places inclusivity and diversity centre stage in a mash-up of circus, music and story. Accessibility is embedded from the get-go, with continuous captions and onstage BSL interpretation from Max Marchewicz (a masterclass in presence and focus).
Ti Green’s big top set is like a Chagall painting; it is colourful and clever, with lighting shifting from an initial pizzazz to something more shadowy as the narrative progresses. It provides the perfect backdrop for a number of visually – and historically – evocative tableaux. The costumes too are stunning (and, later, menacing as the brownshirts arrive).
The live music provides a strong underscoring, alternately atmospheric or powerful, with energetic performances from the band. The musical component is less successful in the songs however, where the captioned lyrics are often somewhat clunky. There is one song in delicious three-part harmony (almost an ironic pastiche of Edelweiss) where the cast’s vocal prowess is clearly evident. Sadly those lyrics let them down again.
Nevertheless, the cast often shine. There are strong performances from Mirabelle Gremaud (as both clairvoyant Queenie and Nazi doctor Margot) and the very moving Joanna Haines (as Dora). Leading lady Abbie Purvis (as Krista), may be short but her execution is mighty, infused with colour and tone. Krista’s tale, with the bitter sweetness of her love for non-disabled Gerhard (the talented Lawrence Swaddle), and the underplaying of the moral issues that surface later, is one where the storytelling is at its best. Indeed, it is the impact of external events on the personal that brings the horror most hauntingly into focus in this show.
The highlights are – not surprisingly – the circus performances themselves, breathtaking and infused with pathos and longing – a deliciously tender trapeze sequence between Waldo’s son Peter (Tilly Lee-Kronick), and gay aerialist Renée (the standout Johnny Leitch, also on drums) is spectacular, and all the more powerful for its wordless expression and silent focus. And in the scenes between circus clowns Mish, (Raphaella Julien) and Mosh (Brooklyn Melvin), much of them signed, we see again that pure human connection can transcend spoken language.
Words aren’t the strongest part of this production, and sometimes on-the-nose narrative gets in the way of emotional impact. The audience knows enough to piece the story together and imagined the horrors to come. We perhaps need a little less telling than is on offer here. We want declamation in the face of adversity, and need to be reminded of the price that disabled people have paid, but the show’s messages are sometimes signalled too obviously and as a result lose their sense of smouldering threat. And there is perhaps not enough of the dark humour or sense of abandon that is often very present in times of crisis. A little more counterpointing with gallows humour and a sense of abandon might make the terror of eugenics and murder more poignant. Send in the clowns?
There is beauty and magic in this production, and work like this needs to be given a broader platform. With that in mind, Waldo’s Circus deserves some fine tuning to allow its performers and their message to really shine.