On a whim I decided this evening to go see Limbo, the headline circus show at the London Wonderground Festival. (Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely going to go at some point, but I just didn’t want to wait anymore.)
So the first thing that happened was, I had a barbecue sandwich from one of the bars in the whimsical beer garden. Now, you might not think that’s relevant, but it was a really really good barbecue sandwich with just the right balance of tangy, spicy, tender and crunchy, and they put dill in the coleslaw which was unexpected and awesome. And it was just exactly what I wanted; it was a perfect accompaniment to a warm summer evening and I was really glad that I had it.
The ensemble at Limbo is a bit like that. They are relentlessly skilled performers who make me think as much as they dazzle me with effects. The show is a literally breathtaking display of sensuous delights with a dark feel.
My praise isn’t unreserved: I saw Cantina last year and it definitely took me longer to warm to Limbo, with its tense morality-play feel. The story (such as there was one) was much darker and less playful than Cantina and it took a while for me to get past the ‘twisted puppet master pulling the strings of his band of freaks’ aesthetic, which I didn’t at first feel was that exciting.
But things very quickly picked up and I felt like the skills on display this year were sharper and more unique than those in Cantina. There were three superb aerial routines, the first a breathtakingly elegiac pole climbing routine which even involved a bit of mime fifteen feet off the stage. It was achingly, hauntingly graceful. The second was a stunning high-energy bit involving three male performers on bendy poles swinging terrifyingly over the audience and into one another. Finally a beautiful trapeze (actually a chain swing) acrobatic piece culminating in an elegant disappearance.
There was a rather sweetly humorous little striptease involving two characters growing increasingly frantic when under each layer of clothing they found yet another layer of clothing, until at last one of them ran off in a fit of pique. I thought that held a rather poignant message about the difficulties of getting together with someone you really fancy–something that on the surface should be the easiest thing in the world.
Another favorite bit of mine was a dance that looked as though Fosse were being channeled from the great beyond, all bowler hats and slick little side kicks (well, aside from the leaping and rolling, of course.) This transitioned into a cane routine that had all the hallmarks of raqs al-assaya (the Egyptian men’s stick dance of strength and virility) despite being dressed up in a pinstripe suit. Naturally I adored this.
But many of the skills on display were actually quite frightening: sword-swallowing, an impaling illusion, those bendy poles. Nothing more so, however, than the fire routine. There was a cage and it was on fire, then it was full of people. There were firebrands juggled, then swallowed. The performers set themselves on fire, they set the stage on fire, they set a giant ladder on fire then one of them climbed up it and walked around with manic glee. I felt compelled to applaud, as though if I didn’t the performers would just keep setting things on fire until one of them died of trying to achieve a continually ever more spectacular illusion.
At the end of the show (when we’d all somehow survived) I left feeling in need of a very strong drink–in lieu of which I walked the entire three and a half miles home along the river in the gloaming. This was theatre that left everything afterwards seeming somehow more rich with meaning than before; there was a new depth, a portent to the evening light streaming across all the iconic sights of London. I felt as though I could have walked to the end of the earth (as far as Shoeburyness, at least.) And it was only when I was a few hundred meters from home that I relaxed enough to notice I’d rubbed a little skin off my foot on the way home. So there you have it: Limbo is so good it draws blood. I bet not many other reviewers have said that.