Friday, November 02, 2018

Freak Show – dark circus with local people (Big Telly at The MAC until 3 Nov) #BelFest2018

“Dark circus with local people” is how I previewed Freak Show on BBC Radio Ulster’s Wow The Fest last Friday. (You can catch the last live show in the series today at 1pm.)

While the circuses that travel across Ireland have long since left behind freakish entertainment, the success of The Greatest Showman since its release last December (on top of Shrek before that) has brought biological rarities back into the public imagination.

Big Telly Theatre Company are known for their imaginative productions, often based on or weaving in local folklore to root the material in familiar language and voices.

As part of Belfast International Arts Festival, Freak Show is playing at The MAC until Saturday 3 March. Over an hour, the audience are introduced to the people running and working in the tented side show.
“Are you ready to stare at rare? Full of curiosity about monstrosity? It’s time to peak at freak …”

Nicky Harley and Keith Singleton effortlessly slip in and out of costumes and masks to portray Mary Murphy Portrush Giantess and her French lover (amazingly based on fact) as well as a myriad of other differently-sized and differently-abled performers. Both performers are masters of physical theatre, switching between accents, tics and facial expressions (sometimes helped by Commedia dell’Arte wooden half masks).

Some characters are surreal (like my favourite hula-hooping recorder-playing bearded lady), some funny, but all are sad. There’s lots of humour in the show but Freak Show walks along a careful tightrope of empathy and emotion. The audience laugh, sometimes because the situation is funny, but often out of discomfort.

Zoe Seaton’s direction keeps the melancholic tone running throughout the show, never allowing a feeling of fear and trauma to be fully swept off the stage. The compact show benefits from Garth McConaghie’s evocative soundscape that changes the temperature of scenes and is effectively synchronised with the stark lighting, allowing characters to keep appearing on stage out of nowhere.

Ultimately the side show’s lonely curator is more sinister and freakish than the vulnerable people he manages. In what is hopefully not a nod to the desperate financial situation in the arts world, there’s a spot of homicide to make ends meet!

As well as telling the story of a north coast side show, the show creates a space and holds a mirror up to reflect on the desperation and freakishness within us all.

Freak Show’s run at The MAC finishes on Saturday 3 November, but the show will return for an Irish tour in March.

Photo credit: Peter Nash

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