‘Some top-class acrobatic mischief’: WOLFGANG’S MAGICAL MUSICAL CIRCUS – Barbican Centre

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Barbican Centre, London

Circa might be best known in the UK for its sophisticated grown-up circus but, this year, the legendary Aussie company has brought one of their dedicated children’s shows over to our shores. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if they’d pull it off. Turns out, though, they can also turn their hand to entertaining tiny tots. This circus-fuelled birthday party is not only magical and musical but comical and charismatic too, filled with some top-class acrobatic mischief. The adaptation of the show’s title from the rather staider ‘Wolfgang’, used at the Edinburgh Fringe earlier this year, gives a much better sense of what audiences are in for.

A woman is alone in her black and white house, hoping someone will come and share her monochrome birthday celebrations. Luckily, someone has given her a magical gift. When the music of Mozart starts playing, it conjures the vibrant composer to life and the famous prodigy comes bounding out of the refrigerator, followed by his own accordion playing accompanist. The maestro’s eccentric energy and enthusiastic curiosity are contagious, transforming the room and the birthday girl’s spirits.

Kathryn O’Keeffe progresses from clipped, staccato precision to ebullient expansion as Wolfgang (Paul O’Keeffe) draws her through a flurry of creative play. He creates games of light and shadows, then twists and twirls papers patterned with musical notes, which stick to his body through the force of his acrobatic gestures. Her feet are given special powers that allow her to dance en pointe, and she bases the whimsical composer in well-matched partner acrobatics that emphasises his fantasy form – he springs to her shoulders and across her back and she smiles with an ease that suggests he weighs nothing. As she really gets into the swing of things, she finds new ways to balance on top of and across a chair using only her hands.

Not a single movement is unconsidered. Even musician Gareth Chin, who remains in the background for most of the show, is fully engaged with every moment, reacting to the madcap composer’s whims, adding live sound to recorded tracks or taking on the role of the entire orchestra. His incongruous golden cherub onesie costume raises a smile all on its own.

And, of course, there’s plenty of room for some classical music-stand clowning, superbly executed, as well as funny business with applause and some spotlight-football. When Wolfie tries to conduct one of his classic arias, his conductor’s baton waving builds to a frenzy of ridiculousness that has the young audience in raptures of laughter.

Kathryn and Paul O’Keeffe in ‘Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus’ IMAGE: Dylan Evans

When I was in infant school, every day in assembly the teachers played a record of classical music and encouraged us to imagine what story it might be telling. It’s been one of my most enduring learning experiences, and I can picture the creation of this show stemming from a similar place: ‘This track makes me imagine a comedy slow-mo fight scene’; ‘This one makes me think of a man riding a bike in his underwear while someone chases after him trying to dress him‘.  The uptight edge of classical music is rubbed away to reveal the radical creativity that allowed Mozart to make his mark on history and, for fifty minutes, lets us be part of the delightful Wolf Gang.

There’s also a great free-sheet programme with facts and fun activities in equal measure. If only I’d brought my felt-tips!

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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 on FacebookKatharine Kavanagh on InstagramKatharine Kavanagh on TwitterKatharine Kavanagh on Youtube
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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