When Philip Henslowe was designing his Rose Theatre in London’s Bankside more than four hundred years ago, he could hardly have guessed that a new theatre in Kingston modelled on his designs would be hosting a circus comedy early in the next millennium.
Yet Henslowe would surely have been delighted by the aptness of the subject matter. Firstly, the auditorium is as circular as a ring; secondly, he also ran his own animal shows with the celebrated actor Edward Alleyn. There’s no getting round the fact that these shows would have included bear-baiting, in line with the public tastes of the day.
You could see The Snow Gorilla as a kind of historic atonement for such cruelty, since the animal of the title, though caged, is no victim at all. Far from it. He is crucial to the plotline, which remains a kind of amoeba of simplicity in order not to interfere with the main business, which is the procession of circus acts. The only twist – and it’s an eye-watering one – is the performance of contortionist Gereltuya Ganbold, who turns assumptions about the limitations of the human body inside out.
Our hero is Sunny, a circus-struck ingenu endearingly played by Ciaran Joyce, low of stature and high of voice. His struggle to live the dream is abetted by Fanny, portrayed as a mumsy pro by Joanne Heywood, and love interest Chloe, tenderly presented by Lucy Hope-Borne. But it is bedevilled by bent ringmeister Erick (worryingly convincing Nicholas Maude) and then redeemed through the good offices of deceptively useless clown Beppo (deceptively useful Sam Parks).
Not forgetting the gorilla himself, Gor. He may be cursed with incarceration at the hands of humans, but he is blessed also. Brian Blessed to be precise. The creature opens his extraordinary mouth and out come the unmistakeable resonances of the bearded baboon himself – no disrespect intended here to man or beast. Gor even bears a facial resemblance to the grizzly but huggable old treasure. So much so that we could have sworn that, come the curtain, off would pop the creature’s head and there Brian’s would be instead.
But no. Again no disrespect to Blessed, but the theatre now exists in a post Warhorse epoch. Creatures are high-tech and need to be driven from within by trained operatives. They are as demanding to work as they are rewarding to see. As with Joey and the other horses evolved by the Handspring puppeteers, Gor’s physical machinations are in effect a star of the show. He is a wonderful invention and until you get to know his body language you could swear it’s taking two people to run him.
Gor is the product of puppet-maker Max Humphries, who has come up with a form that cleverly animalises the human form while humanising the animal one. It is as clever a hybrid as you could want. I could see the children next to me – three to six years old, I’d say – bridle with fear at first sight of him and then soften as they might towards a cuddly uncle. He has a face capable of at least half a dozen clearly differentiated expressions (I counted them and that’s more than many uncles), and not a digital enhancement in sight. All invisible wires and pulleys.
I won’t give the story away as there isn’t one. No, that’s too harsh. Rather, the narrative makes itself scarce while the tumblers and swingers and pole people get on with their tumbling and swinging and poling. Why? Because it’s what they do and this is Christmas and some of their moves are, frankly, miraculous. Great band too. Like the gorilla itself, the show – dreamed up by Tudor Davies, Steve and Steven Bor (father and son) and directed nimbly by Roger Hannah – is an eccentric and rather inspired confection with the basic merit of working. The manufacture of joy is a noble calling. Don’t just take my word on this one; go with the kids, they’re never wrong.
Review by Alan Franks
The Snow Gorilla
Run away to the Rose this Christmas and step into the magical world of the Circus Marigny.
Join Sunny on the adventure of a lifetime and experience African Acrobats, Spanish Flamenco, jugglers, contortionists and death defying aerialists in the land of sawdust and dreams.
Captivated by the spectacular sights and sweet smells of the circus, Sunny finds an unlikely friend in The Mighty Gor and strives to win the heart of the Ring Mistress’ beautiful daughter as he is embraced by this new, eccentric family of performers.
But when he stumbles upon the circus’ dark secret, a mysterious figure threatens Sunny’s newfound happiness…
This Christmas, in an event like no other, circus and storytelling collide on the Rose Theatre stage to create a hugely entertaining spectacle for the whole family!
Rose Productions and BOR Productions
Friday 29th November 2013 to Sunday 5th January 2014
Tuesday 3rd December 2013