Posted on August 23, 2012
It takes a while for one’s eyes to refocus in the dim light of the Spiegeltent, an old-fashioned, but beautifully constructed, 1920s big top currently up on London’s South Bank; it’s as if we’re adjusting to a different era. “Enter the world of Cantina. Leave your real life at the door,” says the promotional material, and there’s an element of truth to this. It is worth going to see Cantina for its gorgeous, shadowy setting alone, but the thrills the show offers are darkly intriguing too.
Headlining Southbank Centre’s Priceless London Wonderground, a new festival of “cabaret, circus and curiosities”, Cantina is a ensemble piece from Australia, starring seven circus and physical theatre performers, that was specifically created for a spiegeltent venue. The costumes are shabby 1930s chic, with faded tea dresses and bloomers for the female performers (much needed – they seem to spend a lot of time upside down or being thrown around), with the boys in flat caps and braces.
Tom Waits’ atmospheric “I’ll Shoot The Moon” puts us in the mood for the fair on May 21. Musical director Nara Demasson has a fairground heritage – and a fabulous moustache, incidentally – and makes many of the show’s antiquated-looking instruments, which the ensemble members take turns to play.
Cantina starts on a high, quite literally, with Chelsea McGuffin (pictured top and below), donning vertiginous silver heels and teetering above the spellbound audience on a tightrope. Chelsea, director and creator of the show with Scott Maidment, trained as a dancer, before moving into circus and it shows in her clean, bouncy Charleston and extraordinary sense of balance.
Doll-like Henna Kaikula (pictured right) plays the ingénue, twisting and contorting her limbs, with exaggerated clicks and giggles, as if discovering for the first time what she can do. Her girlishness and Chelsea’s enthusiastic squealing as she is bowled through the air by two of Cantina’s strongmen belie what is to come.
As the show takes a turn for the dark side these girly girls turn out to be tougher than they look. There is an eye-watering tiptoe across the necks of empty champagne bottles, a high-heeled stomp across naked flesh and some barefoot crunching across a mass of broken glass. Someone really has it in for feet.
Late in Cantina, an apache dance of escalating violence between McGuffin and David Carberry thrilled. But, on the whole, the 60-minute show has a slight pacing problem with too many highlights appearing early on. The male performers, though easy on the eye, were more forgettable than their female counterparts, merging in my memory into various props and bases for the ladies. Though certain audience members might argue that one male, ahem, member made a strong bid for unforgettability in a scene involving full-frontal nudity.
Cantina at Priceless London Wonderground continues until September 30.
Photographs © Idil Sukan