The next headliner in Underbelly Southbank’s 2018 season, SOAP, splashes about but rarely makes waves in its endeavour to be the raunchy circus smash of the summer. Talent feels underused and underserved – and you leave wondering what stopped Base Berlin from fully embracing the show’s campy potential.
Water’s increasingly being incorporated into contemporary circus & variety shows, and it’s not difficult to understand why. As a visual device, it can make pre-existing spectacles even more electrifying. The literal ‘explosiveness’ of splashing echoes (and elevates) the strength of performers – and, above all else, it provides ample reason for buff acrobats to get their kit off. It can do wonders on mammoth-scales (Soleil’s O, for example) but also intimate ones: the hot tub setpiece in Strut & Fret’s sensational Blanc de Blanc sticks in my memory, for instance, as does the bathtub fun in Circus Space’s 2016 2nd-year showcase, Soho.
Opening Underbelly Southbank’s 2018 Spiegeltent season, Base Berlin’s SOAP is the latest to attempt to capitalise on its underlying raunchiness and spectacle. Acts are loosely tied together with a bathtime theme; audiences are treated to ample aerial, hand-balance, clowning, antipodism, etc. Some of it’s entertaining and some of it’s impressive – but interestingly, the overlap between the two isn’t always there.
And I think the creative team are responsible. You leave with the distinct impression that the performers are far superior to the show – always one of the greatest shames in circus. If anything though, the aquatic theme appears to prohibit SOAP‘s creativity, rather than fuel it. On a very literal level, for example, the tubs themselves often obstruct rather than elevate: you miss a substantial amount of impressive contortion from the posh seats, simply because a white container is in the way. The towel-dance ‘full Monty’ conclusion was similarly blocked (although, to be honest, I feel it would best serve the production to replace that sequence altogether).
More than any other art form, I always find the first two minutes of circus to be so crucial – and SOAP unfortunately suffers from really not starting well. Performers don’t seem to have been directed to take the audience under their wing; it somewhat feels like they are performing to a void – and you feel oddly distant, despite your proximity to the action and its populist soundtrack (Gnarls Barkley, at that particular moment).
Like with so much contemporary circus, the simple and understated moments are often the most effective. The handbalancer-in-the-bathtub sequence is a thing of beauty, scrubbers being utilised to brilliant effect. Vanessa Alvarez’s towel-twirling is equally mesmerising (and believe me, it takes a lot for me to come away from circus raving about the Risley). The clown, on the other hand, never quite won me over; I wonder whether she just wasn’t afforded quite enough stage time upfront to develop adequate repour with her audience.
When Anton Belyakov’s straps setpiece arrives, you very much get the impression the whole show has been constructed around it. And that’s no bad thing – the craft on display is phenomenal, and alongside the towel-twirling, it’s the show-stealer which really engages the audience to an extent other acts don’t manage. You do wonder why on earth it hasn’t been placed at the end though – nothing which follows ever lives up to it, and the show concludes with a slight ‘non-ending’ which seems entirely avoidable.
All in all, it’s the production – rather than performers – which don’t quite live up to expectations. The concept, on paper, is as campy as they come (exactly as it should be for a Spiegeltent summer smash), but Base Berlin don’t quite commit to SOAP‘s inherent silliness, and despite incessant six-packs and the excess water dripping off them, the show weirdly doesn’t manage to even feel particularly sexy.