Home » Reviews » Circus » Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, CircusFest 2018 at the Roundhouse – Review
Credit: Ollie Millington
Credit: Ollie Millington

Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, CircusFest 2018 at the Roundhouse – Review

Pros: A concept that is highly technical and inventive. The show features gorgeous live music with a multi-talented, engaging cast.

Cons: There is something not quite right about the narrative pacing. Some of the acts don’t build the sense of anticipation that you expect from circus.

Pros: A concept that is highly technical and inventive. The show features gorgeous live music with a multi-talented, engaging cast. Cons: There is something not quite right about the narrative pacing. Some of the acts don’t build the sense of anticipation that you expect from circus. The Roundhouse is a breath-taking venue. Being the first to arrive in the cavernous auditorium is something quite special. On this occasion, the house lights are a dull red and with the industrial scaffolding that makes up the set of Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine (henceforth to be known at RUHM), the place looks like a circus tent…

Summary

Rating

Good

A game of two halves: the first a little lacklustre, but still entertaining; the second punctuated with moments of circus genius.

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The Roundhouse is a breath-taking venue. Being the first to arrive in the cavernous auditorium is something quite special. On this occasion, the house lights are a dull red and with the industrial scaffolding that makes up the set of Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine (henceforth to be known at RUHM), the place looks like a circus tent from 2050.

Aside from the incredible set, the concept of RUHM is brilliant. A mixture of performers and riggers make up the cast of the show: classic circus acts such as trapeze, tightrope, silks and hoops are turned on their head. One man (Barnz Munn) helps to bring a bizarre, impressive new mobility to many of the acts by acting as a human weight. He’ll weigh down a hoop or trapeze, for example, and launch himself up the metal structure, sort of like a punk Spiderman. The show is charmingly rugged and unpolished in this way; you see the work that would normally be kept backstage.

The content and narrative don’t quite marry with the concept to make a masterpiece. The rough plot is the story of neighbours: relationships, fleeting, or otherwise, form the backdrop to the acts. The first half doesn’t establish this well enough, and the pacing feels wrong. In a circus act, traditional or not, you expect your breath to be taken away, and part of that is down to tension and timing. The performers are wonderful, but most of the acts don’t seem to reach the crescendo you might expect. I totally appreciate that the point of the show is to subvert expectation, but if you see a trapeze, you do expect to see someone swinging on that trapeze. I imagine that the set-up of the rigging may restrict what can be done.

There are moments that do provide this sense of awe, which are the moments where the concept is really justified. If these moments made up the entire show it would really be something special. Ellis Grover’s tight-rope and balancing acts are absolutely charming, but he’s underused in the first act. In the second, Grover is the star of the show. At one point, he sits on a chair that’s balanced on a chair that’s balanced on four bottles. It is, quite frankly, genius. What a guy.

The second half is pacier and takes more risks. There is a scene based on a house party where the recklessness of  alcohol (and I mean that fondly) really works for the premise of the show. The set comes to life: there’s a spiral  staircase made of wooden planks that tip when stepped on. Add a bottle of red wine, and the mesmerising Seren Corrigan, and you’ve got a hilarious, scary, brilliant piece of circus.

Overall, the cast are clearly exceptionally talented people. The idea that drives the show is also a very solid one. I need to mention that the show is worth seeing for the live music alone. The original music by the company is  melancholic and eerily beautiful. Most of the cast can sing, which adds a lovely element to the show. RUHM just needs a little work to find more coherence. I am (clearly) no expert on the fine art of putting a circus show together, but the artform demands that the audience should feel their heart pound out of their chest, which this show doesn’t quite manage.

Conceived by: James Williams & Pirates of the Carabina
Directed by: James Williams
Booking Until: 15 April 2018
Box Office: 0300 6789 222
Booking Link: www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2018/circusfest- 2018/relentless-unstoppable- human-
machine/

About Bryony Taylor

Bryony is an English Literature MA student at Birkbeck and long term theatre addict. Playing angel #14 in her primary school production of 'What a Very Grumpy Sheep' paved the way for a happy long term relationship with the theatre. When not watching plays or manically writing essays way before the deadline (a day is long enough, yes?), she can be found reading, foraging for her next meal, or in the pub. She's waiting for someone to write a play that encompasses all of these hobbies. Bryony would be willing to reprise her role as Angel #14, as it was a groundbreaking performance.
  • Interesting read, thanks! Am struck by the general assumptions made about what circus ‘is’ or what expectations of circus ‘should’ be.

    – ‘In a circus act, traditional or not, you expect your breath to be taken away, and part of that is down to tension and timing.’

    Having seen a lot of experimental and evolving theatrical circus from Europe and beyond, this is certainly not my expectation. Sometimes it is a more measured, poetic awe, based on dance-like revelation of the body’s possibilities. Sometimes it is about the surprise of seeing an established discipline deconstructed into its constituent parts and rearranged like a collage. Sometimes it is about dispelling a fantasy superhero and coming face to face with another human being.

    – ‘If you see a trapeze, you do expect to see someone swinging on that trapeze’

    Erm, you do know that Swinging Trapeze is only one type of trapeze and I could name three others off the top of my head? (Flying, Static and Dance, in case you were wondering!)
    What’s especially interesting about the routine in this show is that Eric McGill IS actually performing moves that are normally only seen on a Swinging Trapeze, but they’re made possible here by Barnz Munn’s vertical counterweighting that provides equivalent moments of ‘weightlessness’ between up and down instead of forwards and backwards. For a really long time circus sold itself on the fact that it provided something mysterious and magical but now, while we wait for the knowledge of public commentators to match that of the increasing numbers of people familiar with circus artistry, ignorance of the form can do the work an injustice. It reminds me of stories of Westerners encountering virtuosic Japanese musicians for the first time and being unable to recognise any skill level because the form was so alien. Now, of course, we are more familiar with other culture’s musical traditions. Not yet so with circus skill!

    • Bryony Taylor

      Hello, Bryony (author) here!

      Very valid points here.

      I was not questioning the talent in the show or brilliance of the concept, just something missing from the overall awe of the piece, which even a new-comer should be able to experience. If an art-form is subtle in its approach, that should not be judged, however the overall expectation in this sort of theatre, or any theatre at all, is to be lead to a narrative climax of some form: I felt that neither the plot nor acts reached this point. It was not meant as a comment to question the integrity or ingenuity of the acts or the ideas behind them: I think I actively stove in my review to assert my appreciation over the subversive aspect of the show.

      Your comment on my line about ‘If you see a trapeze, you do expect to see someone swinging on that trapeze’, is totally valid, and perhaps I was too flippant and vague and does not represent the forms of circus you mention. Thank you!

      Thanks for commenting. I, of course, value new approaches to theatre- which I hope does come across in this article. Also this sort of comment starts vital conversations about what we expect from theatre, and it is encouraging to be challenged as this is how reviewers also hone their ability to write these posts.

      • Yes! Thank you Bryony for your response! I think there is something of an underlying problem for me – not with your response, but with the way circus is so often packaged or saddled with ezpectations of theatre. In many cases, in my experience, circus-based productions sit closer to live art than theatre, but are rarely discussed in those terms, perhaps because of particular expectations linked to the buildings they’re shown in? Or a dominant hegemony of theatre ideals in the British performing arts industry?