The setting is Germany, 1933. In the streets, Nazis are burning books. Beneath a spangled big top, deftly suggested by Ti Green’s set, with red-curtained, bulb-outlined doorway and sets of bleachers to either side, the grizzled, rouge-cheeked, sardonic ringmaster, Waldo (Garry Robson), worries that turnover is down. Shrugging away a Jewish colleague who asks for shelter, he tells him: “Excesses pass.”
This new production from Extraordinary Bodies (in co-production with Bristol Old Vic and Theatre Royal, Plymouth) is built around true stories and billed as a “large-scale collaboration between D/deaf, disabled and non-disabled artists and creators” (the integration of characters’ use of British Sign Language and the spoken word, combined with the presence of onstage BSL interpreter Max Marchewicz, is seamless). Co-written by Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard, with music by Charles Hazlewood, it tackles big issues of the sort that might make playwright David Hare reconsider his recent complaint that “musicals have become the leylandii of theatre”.
Waldo cannot keep the terrors in the street at bay. His son, Peter (Tilly Lee-Kronick), runs away to join the brownshirts, fleeing his desire for gay aerialist Renée (Johnny Leitch, also on drums), sublimated in the haunting duet they practise on the trapeze. Abbie Purvis’s Krista, longing for children and courted by the newest performer, non-disabled Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle), accuses him of “curiosity” for the “exotic”, until he manages to persuade her of his sincerity. However, Gerhard’s sister Margot (Mirabelle Gremaud) is a Nazi doctor, intent on eradicating physical nonconformity through sterilisation. Can Waldo’s disappearing act save the performers?
If at times the storyline comes across as simplistic, and the direction (by Billy Alwen, Jenny Davies and Claire Hodgson) occasionally allows pathos to undermine pizazz, the live music is vibrant, performances moving, circus skills entertaining and the ultimate effect captivating and thought-provoking. The excesses of that time may have passed, but we need more than magic to eradicate the underlying attitudes that enabled them.