Underbelly Festival, London – until 15 September 2019
Promising ‘a decadent and astonishing blend of sensational acrobatics, soaring aerial trapeze, operatic cabaret and tongue in cheek burlesque’, Rouge transfers to London straight off the back of its UK premiere for Underbelly at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Firstly, a caveat. At the performance I saw, opera singer Issie Hart was suffering from laryngitis so had to take a more minimal part in the show. I’ll review the show I saw. Hart’s illness serves as a reminder of the toll that such a long festival fringe then another lengthy run at Underbelly on the Southbank takes on the body. It reminds us that what her colleagues can achieve with their bodies night after night is nothing short of spectacular.
The spoken introduction from acrobat/dancer/compere Paul Westbrook promised a sexy evening based on respect and consent, but additional, let’s say “explicit encouragement” made me worry about what I’d let myself in for. Thankfully, Westbrook’s ingenious choreography is comedic as much as it is try-hard sexy (an all-male No Scrubs with hints of the Singles Ladies routine, anyone?) taking its cues from slick cuts in the soundtrack and playful inspiration from the lyrics.
Burlesque and circus are a match made in heaven. Sexy sumptuous costumes, rippling bodies and representations of diverse relationship styles and sexualities are blended with comedic elements to make a thoroughly enjoyable show. Sometimes the transitions between these moods are less than smooth, but perhaps I can blame that on the altered show I saw. For me, though, I could do without the elements of actual nudity. I’m not sure whether topless hula hooping is meant to be funny or sexy or both, but it is quite hard to enjoy anything fearing for a trapped nipple at every rotation.
Acrobats Liam deJong, Madison Burleigh and Lyndon Johnson are masters of their crafts, and clearly revelled in this playful environment, but the highlight for me was the sheer joy which radiated from Jessie Mckibben. Whether spinning in a gigantic hoop, eating fire, contorting in mid air or deftly cracking a whip, the freedom and enjoyment she found in her performance is a thing to behold.
This production would likely be vastly energised by a more up-for-it audience, which I think could easily be achieved simply with a later start time. Press night had a delayed start (7.45) and we were still pretty much out before dark. The rest of the run is at an even earlier 7.15. It’s hard to submit to even the most seductive show if you know you can still be tucked in bed by 9pm, and this feels more towards-the-end-of-a-night than the start.
In short, go for the stunning circus skills and comedic flare, but be prepared that it’s not all that sexy. And maybe have a drink first.
Rouge runs from 28 Aug-15 Sep. Tickets: www.underbellyfestival.com