You should brace yourself before seeing Nights At The Circus, and not just because of its circus setting. Adapted from Angela Carter’s 1984 novel, it follows a troupe of circus entertainers journeying from London to Siberia. The social tensions of the eighties - notably regarding sex - surface vividly along the way. Carter’s novel is unrestrainedly daring. Bringing it to the stage was never going to result in a comfortable experience.
This production has a lot going for it. Shala Isis is captivating as our heroine, Fevvers. A girl who sprouted wings (‘fevvers’) during puberty, Fevvers is the star of the circus. In her corset, platforms, pink fishnet tights and peroxide hair, Isis’ Fevvers has a Lady Gaga like charisma. Playing this cockney Venus demands gusto, and Isis delivers. What’s more, with her appealingly husky voice, Isis realises Fevvers’ affectionate, sympathetic side just as believably as her tougher, more assertive one.
Scott McGarrick as Jack Walser suffers by comparison. Walser, a journalist looking to write a feature on Fevvers’ enigmatic past, is an outsider among the circus troop. He should, therefore, be a figure for the audience’s sympathy. But McGarrick doesn’t quite manage this. His Walser struck me as weak and bumbling, where he should be shy and charming. I wasn’t convinced that a girl like Fevvers would fall for him.
This production certainly captures the darkness of Carter’s imagination. Much of clowns’ speech is so mirthlessly bleak that it could easily provoke a phobia of clowns. The bitter, knowing delivery of the line, ‘a child’s laughter is pure until he first laughs at a clown’ still haunts me. But the clowns aren’t even the most shocking thing that this show has to offer. After the nightmarish realisation of the story’s most chaotic and violent scene, I was actually relieved to see them.
It’s an ambitious choice of show and, despite some of the weaker acting, one that this production pulls it off with panache. I should warn you, however, that Nights At The Circus is a lot to take in in one night. It isn’t a show for the fainthearted.