The Circus of Horrors: Night of the Zombie : the limits of irony, parody and pastiche?
Lancaster Grand Theatre, 28th November 2014
The Circus of Horrors has been around since the 1995 when they premiered at Glastonbury, and riding a wave of interest in ‘alternative’ circus created by slicker operations like Archaos and also in what came to be known as ‘twisted cabaret’, they rapidly attained ‘sub-cultural’ status and credibility. They have always played on the aspects of circus historically associated with the freak show and as I am quite squeamish about certain things, reports at the time that it featured acts in which people stuck needles through their bodies and hung heavy weights from their penis, made me decide these shows were definitely not for me. With age I have become (a tiny bit) less squeamish but despite an appearance on the family–friendly TV show Britain’s Got Talent which has created a new audience for their productions, nothing much seems to have changed with The Circus of Horrors format
Night of the Zombie starts with a ‘disclaimer’ indicating the performance contains nudity, bad language and other explicit content and finishes by stating ‘so cissies and chavs can piss off now’. Despite a promise in the promotional material of a narrative, what follows is a series of acts loosely tied together more by a generalised ‘horror’ theme than a specific ‘zombie’ one and by a series of rock numbers sung by the ring master/compere ‘Dr Haze’, and sometimes by a woman and accompanied by a four piece band. These might be described as light heavy metal and give the production a degree of raw energy boosted by Haze’s strong stage presence but to be brutal I wasn’t sure whether or not these numbers were intended as a parody of a very bad heavy metal band on the model of the (still) famous 1984 mockumentary film This is Spinal Tap. This idea was supported by the heavy handed ‘stadium’ lighting, the bands styling and posing and by tropes such the constant use of the ‘devils horns’ hand gesture by the band and indeed the whole cast, as well as the quality of the music (and sound system).
This is an issue with the show as a whole. When seen in the ‘mainstream’ context of the sorts of venues they now play, it is hard to tell whether this production is deliberately and ironically raw and ‘trashy’ and parodically and self-consciously ‘transgressive’, or just badly done and verging on the offensive.
Some of the acts are based on traditional circus and/or variety skills and include acrobatics, knife throwing, sword swallowing and aerial performance. These are dressed up and performed in ways to appear as grotesque, dangerous and/or politically incorrect as possible. Before starting his first ‘turn’ for instance, Dr Haze encourages the sword swallower who is costumed like an evil villain in a post-apocalyptic road movie, to display to the audience his forked tongue, multiple piercing, tattoos and disturbingly, his deliberately created ‘floating ribs’ that allow him to undertake parts of his act.
The three person acrobat troupe are young Black men and introduced as ‘the Voodoo Brothers’ they perform their first set clad in the sort of generic leopard skin, African ‘native’ costume they might have been given to wear as extras in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s before the rise to influence of the American Civil Rights Movement. Completing this picture they end the show with limbo dancing under a burning pole.
Meanwhile, throughout the show female performers costumed in various styles of revealing rock chick, leather fetish wear, gyrate in a ‘sexy’ fashion to the music and often function more or less as stage dressing. At one point one of these women performs a partial strip as a ‘tease’ involving a member of the audience but the show’s ‘nudity’ is mainly confined to an artist of restricted growth. As traditional in historical circus and variety, he plays a key part of the show’s comic relief but he also offers one of two body based ‘endurance acts’, frequently displaying his bare bottom and penis as part of routines in which he suspends a heavy weight from this organ and later attaches it to a hoover which he then pulls round the stage and later he holds a lighted firework between his (bottom) cheeks.
In short all sorts of dubious and out-dated stereotypes are staged but whether ultimately this operates as carnivalesque subversion in which there is a self-aware and ironic collusion between these performers and audiences that takes delight in challenging and outraging liberal middle class political correctness, or whether its simply repeats and affirms these stereotypes remains open to question.
On the other hand I have seen many art-house ‘experimental’ productions where the politics (at least in regard to gender , sexuality and ethnicity) have potentially been just as ambivalent but this is never raised in reviews because, when the work has the aura of ‘art’ rather than commercial entertainment, the complacent assumption of liberal political correctness can allow certain attitudes to remain implicit, operating as unquestioned ‘norms’. In this respect there is something to be said for The Circus of Horror’s anarchic in –your-face attitude.
And as commercial entertainment determined to give the audience its money’s worth it’s hard not to warm to some aspects of Night of the Zombie. There is some genuinely funny audience participation mostly managed by a slightly camp Nosferatu figure for whom women are ‘fish’ and men ‘sausage’, and some amusing and inventive use of props and effects, throughout. The ‘Voodoo Brothers’ return in the second half with a striking and witty routine performed in luminescent skeleton suits and I developed a fondness for the team of ‘zombies’ stagehands who stagger across the middle of stage apparently hauling the ropes for the aerial acts, although whether they are actually doing so or whether this was ‘performed’ as part of the old school ‘rough and readiness’ of the show’s aesthetic is again unclear.
As is often the case in circus, the aerial acts particularly the ‘Sinister Sisters’ are the highlight and the ‘core’ of the show. While in comparison to artists in companies such as Ockham’s Razor this duo don’t push the boundaries of their art in terms of the form or their technical skills, they had some thrilling moments and I loved the way their presentation plays on the contrast between their physical appearance as slender, even fragile young women and the strength required by their act.
I also loved the ‘hair hanging’ act which initiates the show’s finale. Suspended from a rope by her hair and spinning above the stage in a stately fashion with fireworks shooting out from her hips, this performer remained me strongly of the redoubtable ‘Fevvers’, the main character of Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus. In general, this finale was a wonderfully exuberant mix of fast paced multi-focus action, with lots of fire and fireworks and all members of the troupe working full out and so evidently determined to ensure the evening ended with a bang, that it could not help but be charming and disarming.
Afterwards, reading the flyer handed out by members of the company in the foyer as we left, I noticed that this show appears to have an extraordinarily punishing touring schedule, necessary presumably to cover the costs of its large cast and technical demands. Consisting of a series of one night stands criss-crossing the country, with few or any breaks, this tour recalls the ‘good old days’ of variety that like so many things may only seem ‘good’ – for the vast majority of those directly involved- from a romantic distance. I’m glad that after all these years I did finally go and see The Circus of Horrors and but I am left with a nagging feeling that it came out of a ‘post-modern’ time and a sub-cultural place, where the use of irony, parody and pastiche critique was assumed to ensure ‘critical distance’ in a way that now seems questionable terms of its efficacy. Unwittingly then this circus may be trading on a mode of nostalgia that can be beguiling but may not stand up to more thoughtful scrutiny.