Editors Note: This review is part of theatrebristol.net's second open Mayfest Audience Reviews Project, and the opinions contained are soley those of the author and not those of Theatre Bristol as an organisation, nor should they be attributed as such. For more information about the reviews project contact email@example.com.
Sleazy showmen. Ghoulish grins. An unsettling world where all is not as it seems... but enough about this week's election, and welcome one and all to Carny Village, the latest sensational show from the Invisible Circus. Carny Village is a sort of 'prequel' to the now legendary Carny Ville: where the first show burst forth from every nook and cranny of the Invisible Circus' atmospheric current base, The Island (formerly an old Fire Station), this new show transforms the immersive mix of theatre, circus, set design and social interaction into a format suitable for touring.
The audience gathers in the Boneyard Bar, before being led outdoors into the courtyard, where we step into a small, and slightly odd, village. The action is woven through the space, performers appearing on the ramparts of the town walls, a central stage of bales of hay, running in amongst us. We hear of the pied piper, and begin to detect various intrigues and relationships between the characters. A boy is tired of selling sticks, and longs to escape his mother's apron strings. A spoilt little girl terrorises the other villagers. A mother longs for her son to return home. A vicar and his wife control the other villagers through fear and the word of the pied piper, an invisible force that only they can decipher through the sacrificial slaughter of rats. A woman takes in sewing from other villagers, but they mistrust her foreign ways – and is that a glimpse of a tiara we see under her headscarf?
It's robust, ribald comedy, and the audience roar with laughter, but as ever with the Invisible Circus there are also socio-political questions being asked, if you want to read it on that level: how do we as a society treat children? How do our leaders – religious and secular – use dire warnings to control us? How do we treat 'incomers' to our communities?
And then the Circus is in town, and like the children in the pied piper's tale, the villagers and we, the audience are drawn in, curious and exhilarated, following them indoors, where the space has been transformed into a giant marquee, to take our seats around the central stage. This is circus of the highest order, from highly-skilled, committed and passionate performers at the top of their game and, throughout, the Invisible Circus have us in the palm of their hand. A mention here in particular for the musicians, who are excellent. Alongside the dazzling performances, an important point is also being made: where the villagers initially view the circus with deep suspicion but are won over, the circus welcomes one and all: all are ordinary, all are extraordinary. At a time when immigration is on our national agenda and fear of the unfamiliar is being whipped up in some quarters, this message of acceptance of the 'other' has an urgency.
On a local level, it is exciting to see performers from around the world making their home here, and to watch them develop as a company – they just keep getting better and better, and now that they have a touring format for this work, I'm sure they will make us, as their adopted home town, proud.
At the end of the show, we are told that the Invisible Circus is going on around us all the time, and we can all play our part. And, as if to drive this point home, as the audience leaves the 'big top' and wanders back out into the 'village', we find ourselves amid a ceilidh already in full swing, performers and audience getting stuck in, led by a female MC on the ramparts, who owes more to Flavor Flav than any conventional country dancing caller.
Thought-provoking, entertaining, awe-inspiring, and a bloody good knees-up, while CarnyVillage is in town, vote with your feet.