Black Cat: Bohemia sets Underbelly’s Spiegeltent alight with an impressive international line-up, an endearing and charismatic MC and plenty of real searing flames – but one too many moments feel genuinely (rather than just aesthetically) reckless for comfort.
Black Cat become the first London company to ever headline Underbelly Southbank’s Spiegeltent with Bohemia: an anarchic, if occasionally reckless, salute to the ‘socially unconventional’. Embodying the spirit of a Montmartre-esque ‘underworld’ seems of particular interest to MC Frisky (Laura Corcoran) and an impressive line-up of international cabaret-circus performers, and Underbelly’s stunning mirrored venue is soon set alight with Cyr wheels, plenty of aerial and – yes – real, searing flames courtesy of fire burlesque show-stealer Hayley Harvey-Gomez.
As the fey ‘Spirit of Bohemia’, Cocoran’s characterisation perhaps lacks a USP but has charisma and quick-witted audience putdowns by the bucketload. Her reworking of Kate Bush’s ‘Wow’ is a haunting highlight, and audience interactions consistently amusing and unpredictable. Elsewhere, performers are strong across the board but acts could occasionally be elevated further with directorial intervention.
Jo Moss’ Cyr wheel routine is technically ambitious and impressive, for example, but he lets us see a bit much of his ability a bit soon – and the music, lacking a clear crescendo or build-up, does little to assist in the routine’s structuring. The Knaves (Nicolas Jelmoni and LJ Marles) are excellent at embodying the loveable ‘delinquents’ of the underworld, but occasionally lack the precision necessary for their routines to be completely satisfying. I appreciate there’s always a fine line in cabaret between something looking scrappy (often the intention, and in keeping with the aesthetic) and actually being scrappy – but I wasn’t given complete confidence that the Knaves are always (albeit secretly) ‘in control’. More on that in a minute.
In addition to the aforementioned fire act from Harvey-Gomez and Cocoran’s ‘Wow’, the other highlight of the night is Charlotte O’Sullivan and Nicolas Jelmoni’s sensational acro-dance duo. Superior to any comparable act I’ve seen in the Spiegeltent or beyond in recent years, both the choreography and chemistry is nothing short of staggering. The control, the poise and the drops completely warrant the loudest audience applause of the night – something which acro-dance, in my experience at least, is rare to receive.
There are moments of Black Cat: Bohemia, though, which felt a little too reckless for comfort on the night I attended – and of course I want it to ‘appear’ reckless, but don’t the moment I’m unconvinced ‘appearance’ is all it is. To be clear, I’m not referring to Leon Fagbemi’s injury that temporarily halted the press performance. Any decent reviewer can, of course, see past that and wish him a speedy recovery – and I’m perfectly aware his withdrawal from the remainder of the show will have had a knock-on effect to later ensemble sequences.
Elsewhere though, a leather whip flew out of one of the Knaves’ hands mid-act. An audience member’s glasses were physically kicked off his nose onto the floor during an aerial routine – and during the first ensemble sequence (pre Fagbemi’s injury), another performer misjudged a jump from stage down to auditorium and hurled into a row of seats. Don’t get me wrong, no audience members were profoundly hurt – and they are all honest, genuine mistakes. But nevertheless, control has to be everything with a performance of this nature – and a dishevelled and anarchic aesthetic cannot ever become a mask, or excuse, for putting anyone, unwillingly, at risk of getting hurt.