If you’re scared of clowns look away now. This circus themed production of Thomas Middleton’s murderous play tries to turn dark tragedy into black comedy but fails to convince as either.

Although Pierrot as a rapist may grab your attention, the circus motifs are haphazardly applied to the elaborate revenge plot and bitter rivalries that make up the story.

The deliberately broad playing style is too big for the tiny space at the Hen and Chickens. Dark and lyrical descriptions of murder and incest in the text are undermined by unsubtle mime show. The characters are often presented as types – the lusty stepmother, the lascivious older man - but presenting the main antagonists as comic grotesques feels misconceived. The staging doesn’t really work so complex actions of moral corruption in the play are reduced to a series of sexual clichés that are neither comic nor disturbing.

The attempts at audience interaction miss their mark. Perhaps they are meant to make us feel complicit in the deaths or alienated by the ‘breaking the frame’ devices but for the most part I was baffled.

Some of the performances are pitched at a more human level. Dan Martin as Vendici manages to convey his journey from righteous avenger to morally compromised murderer. Andrew Futaishi as the Duke’s bastard son is under-used and Felix Trench makes a sinister Junior. But it’s hard to enjoy the story when the shifting human morality which is the play’s main focus is so robustly ignored by the direction.

This is not an easy play and it should be uncomfortable to watch. But it needs a lighter touch than this to explore the horror and take us on the ride.

Reviews by Emma Lindley

The Blurb

The lights go down. The applause echoes. The artists take their bows. But after the spectators have gone home, the candy floss has been eaten and the sequinned costumes put away, Duke’s Travelling Sequence becomes a playground for vice, violence and corruption. We invite you into the suffocating world of the troupe to meet the beautiful and virtuous Castiza and the voluptuary Lussurioso, the Ringmaster’s scheming heir. We invite you to meet the duplicitous twin, Ambitioso and Supervacuo and their younger brother-a smiling clown by day but a vicious rapist who stalks the empty playground at night…We invite you into the boudoir of the Duchess, up into the dizzying heights of the Big Top and right into the centre of the sawdust ring…