West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 1 March, 2000

Circus Oz was one of the first "alternative circus" companies using conventional circus skills (tumbling, aerialism, juggling and the like) but in a setting of brash contemporaneity rather than "traditional" sequins and tat. However, on the strength of their performance in Leeds (towards the start of a nine-week national tour), they could do with a bit more of the brashness. Programme notes about Aborigine rights and American cultural imperialism do not mince words, but on stage the only social or political comment we get are a mock-Queen making a rather coy reference to the recent Australian referendum on "her" status, a fleeting appearance by a Statue of Liberty who shoots down a less than reverent seagull, and an equally brief but entirely comment-free glimpse of the Olympic rings in anticipation of Sydney's role as host to the Games this year.

Oz's two-hour show is consistently likeable, but seldom much more. The juggling routines are the most wholly original, with one performer putting on jacket, trousers and hat whilst keeping three balls in the air, and later on a couple of trenchcoated spies repeatedly prevented from making off with the money and the secrets by having to fend off flying Indian clubs. In addition to the usual gymnastic work on the floor, various ropes, trapezes and poles, Nicci Wilks finds a new environment for such exercises in what can best be described as a gigantic, free-rolling hamster wheel. John O'Hagan, having wheeled his contrabass through the Playhouse bar before the show busking a version of Cameo's "Word Up", carries on playing it in the second half when both he and the instrument are several metres above the stage in flying harnesses.

However, for the most part the performers seem to lack what jazzmen call "chops": a distinctive phrasing or approach which brands even standard material as one's own. Kate Kantor's clowning in a suit and moustache as safety officer Paul, like most of the comic element in the show, produces smiles rather than laughs. Perhaps a batch of material, both commentary and comedy, was considered too Ocker-specific by the company and jettisoned for an international audience; if so, I suspect it was a mistake. The circus form can stand indeed, arguably requires quite a bit more subversion and updating than Circus Oz dare to throw at it here.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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