‘Energising & thoroughly entertaining evening out’: SOAP – Underbelly Festival

In Circus, Festivals, London theatre, Opinion, Reviews by Katharine KavanaghLeave a Comment

The Spiegeltent, London – until 17 June 2018

The long-running German production Soap makes a splash on the UK scene this year, performing in the round for the first time, and filling the Underbelly’s stylish Spiegeltent with bathtubs, opera singing, slick acrobatic bodies and classic clowning dressed down in swim cap and galoshes.

The show sits in a tradition of themed variety shows that the Underbelly has programmed into this slot in previous years, and I walk in expecting something of a similarly adult nature. However, underneath the sultry promo photos, Soap is advertised as ‘good clean fun’ and surprises me by living up to the tag. There’s still plenty of bare skin, romantically themed routines and flirty looks from the cast, but a thread of lighthearted absurdity runs through the evening and the raunchier routines seem PG rather than X-rated. This is a show that you could bring your gran and your tweenager to, and you’d all get just as much entertainment from the evening.

Directors Markus Pabst and Maximilian Rambaek have been honing the international hit since 2007, and the cast currently in London consists of eight performers, five bathtubs, two industrial size water pipes, and recurring appearances from a yellow rubber duck.  Marie-Andrée Lemaire is excellent as the cheeky figure who holds the show’s disparate scenes together, supplying the lion’s share of the show’s quirky comedy. Operatic powerhouse Jennifer Lindshield also has a divine instinct for comedy as she sings to the music of Handel, Beethoven or The Beatles, marking time with a wooden spoon, face filled with expressive grandeur wholly at odds with the splishy splashy environment or corny lyrics.

It’s a treat to see a show with women at the comedy helm, and in ways unrelated to their gender. Soap also moves outside the heteronormative in its character portrayals, although still has some way to go before it breaks the stereotypes so often found in portrayals of gayness. (I recently attended a talk by trapeze artist Eric McGill at the Circus & Beyond conference in Sheffield, who spoke very eloquently about the lack of ‘soft love’ between men in circus representation, and the common trope of lesbian romance being presented for provocative purposes.)

A selection of popular music supplements the live, and inserts a rock edge to the othertime ambience of bubbles and bath sounds. When Adem Endris performs his bounce juggling, the neon pink balls provide percussive accompaniment, adding exciting changes of rhythm to the soundscape that enhance the visual impact of his patterns. He has great skills and, among the many circus ‘strip’ acts I’ve seen, I’m pretty certain this is the first one I’ve caught from a juggler! Adem also takes part in a cheeky towel routine, transforming the classic duet of Les Beaux Freres into a trio for SOAP. If you’ve seen the duo’s original choreography, this sits a clear second place, but otherwise is amusing enough on its own merits.

Vanessa Alvarez in ‘SOAP’

I’m especially impressed by Moritz Haase, who is a beautiful dancer, performing in partnership with bathtub or trapeze. An intent, emotion-filled gaze, balletic lines and natural acting ability make him a delight to watch. In fact, everyone in the cast has superb skills. Antipodist Vanessa Alvarez whirls and tosses white mats between her feet and hands at a remarkable speed; Lena Ries performs a lyrical routine of bonebreaking and contortion, making dislocated shoulders seem graceful amid gymnastic precision of walkovers and handstand poses; Daniel Stern – in addition to a three-way adagio with Ries and Alvarez that delivers more drama than the standard duet – inherits the aerial straps role familiar to many through the success of David O’Mer’s Bath Boy act, originally devised with SOAP director Markus Pabst; Anton Belyakov unassumingly hops repeated 360s on one arm, or performs rockstar handstands on the slippery curved sides of a freestanding tub, throwing arcs of water droplets that sparkle under flashing lights.

Moritz Haase in ‘SOAP’

I’m sitting in the front row, and the cellophane blanket provided to keep the drips off keeps me and my bag safely non-soggy, even in the close confines of the spiegeltent. The floor of the small stage is completely sodden by the end of the show, creating a glittering carpet for feet to splash and slide through before a final mop-ography from the whole cast. There’s no overarching story to SOAP, but it is satisfying to be able to trace the tiny narrative thread of Haase’s journey through the show alongside more physical reactions to shining visuals, spraying jets of water, shamelessly silly humour and adventurous sounds.  An energising and thoroughly entertaining evening out.

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Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."
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Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."