The Belfast Circus School
May 7th-10th and 15th-17th
If you were looking for evidence of how brilliant Northern Irish theatre can be in the teeth of vicious budget cuts, then new Rawlife show Lanciatore might well be Exhibit A.
With a cracking script by gifted writer Paul Kennedy, direction by Martin McSharry and PJ O’ Reilly, design by Niall Rea and a great cast, the production showcases the depth of talent here. This is a company that knows it has a good show, and that confidence invests performances with a sassy energy and the production with real brio.
Lanciatore is a simple good-natured juggler, who, having left the circus to marry his beloved contortionist Victoria, finds himself a young father and short a few quid. He conceives a scheme to borrow off a moneylender, buy into the card game of the Vagabondi, and make a packet. It doesn’t quite work out like that.
The show opens with a chorus of salty whores, played by Claire Connor, Julie Maxwell and the always-excellent Jo Donnelly, bemoaning the financial crisis that has left them short of work. They tease and flirt with the audience, and with Lanciatore, desperate to make a few lire. In tattered costumes that reference Venetian carnival and the Commedia style, they gyrate and grind and flaunt themselves in a beautifully rhythmic sequence that sets the tone and the style of the piece and draws us right in form the outset. It is deliciously saucy writing, wonderfully played and expertly choreographed. This sets the pattern for the rest of the play – the three women of the chorus play the Vagabondi and the debt collectors Rack and Ruin also, resorting to masks and vocal effects to inhabit other characters. Here is a fine example of acting skill being used to multi-role, without the need for fussy costume changes, silly hats or physical ticks. It works splendidly.
The title character is played by Terry Keeley, and his performance is pitch perfect – Keeley is that rare creature, an actor of precise and perfectly judged instincts. He hits the right emotional note every time: naive and optimistic at the outset, winningly cocky when he’s sure of his scheme, blithely indifferent to advice when he should listen, and then broken and abject when he is left penniless. Despite his folly, his concatenation of poor decisions and his betrayal of his wife and child, we never for a second lose sympathy. This is a young actor who will surely scale the heights of the profession. He can only get better, and already he’s frighteningly good.
Roisin Gallagher as his wife Victoria must have felt a sense of déjà vu: here, as in her last role as Lally in Tinderbox show Lally the Scut, she plays a good woman whose life is ruined by a foolish husband who thinks he knows best and falls foul of an irresistible impulse to gamble with her future. She handles the role with the same mix of anger and frustration, and a sense of betrayal, but here we feel that whatever her threats to leave him, she loves Lanciatore too much to walk out. As ever, her responses are perfectly judged. She is an actor of real heart, and emotional truth comes through in everything she does in the play. Together, she and Keeley make a compulsively watchable couple.
Michael Liebmann makes up the trio of leads, as both the priest and the moneylender. While the part of the moneylender is more of a cipher, and feels less fully realised, the priest is a hoot: a worldly, wisecracking chummy cleric who is never stuck for a quick line. Liebmann is excellent value in the part, and it’s only a shame we don’t see more of this gifted actor here, now that his success has brought him jobs in television and film.
Perhaps the really great achievement of this show, however, is how the elements fit so beautifully together. Everything is of a piece, the script with its Italian setting, the Commedia dell’Arte stylings, the clever set comprising circus vaulting boxes and ramps, the wonderful costumes, and indeed the inspired choice of venue. The Belfast Circus School is the perfect place to stage this play, with its circus juggler narrative, and its visual references to that tradition. The directors and designer deserve special credit for creating a conceptually-unified piece of theatre. All the elements work to the same ends, and the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Niall Rea’s design is simple and unfussy, but very effective. The set is used to excellent purpose by the company, and the costumes add the grace notes, referencing the design styles that inform the play. It requires real skill to do something so simple, and to be this effective using only a few visual elements.
Special mention must also go to Rui Chaves, the sound designer and composer. The score, a mix of effects, rhythmic and melodious pieces, shows his Latin origins, and if occasionally it sounds more Portuguese / Brazilian than Italian, it works no less well for that. In the scenes where physical performance and movement pieces work with the score, the music is nothing short of perfect. One can hardly imagine why the company wasn’t selling CDs after the performance. The audience members would surely have snapped them up.
If there were points where the show seemed to work less well, these were rare: the occasional moments where the directorial interventions felt a little forced, where material was overworked. One example is the sequences featuring Rack and Ruin. Every line of dialogue was accompanied by a distinct gesture, and though enjoyable initially, after a time this felt less than necessary. But to carp would be petty – the show was beautifully contrived, and only in the briefest of moments was this less than expertly judged.
The play ran as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, but the good news is that it will be running this weekend again at the Belfast Circus School and we have high hopes that it will tour after that. It deserves your attendance readers, so go see it now, and tell your friends.
Review by Brezelec