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Rouge at Underbelly Festival Southbank | Review

Rouge. Trio. Photo by John Fisher.
Rouge. Trio. Photo by John Fisher.

Rouge comes across as a series of disconnected circus acts, with no overarching themes or narrative to speak of. It delivers, however, on the concept of being ‘circus for grown-ups’, inasmuch as this isn’t exactly a family-friendly production. The sexual appeal (for that is what it is) starts even before anybody has bounded onto the stage, with Paul Westbrook practically barking at the audience to pump up the volume and applaud whenever it sees something suitably impressive.

Ultimately, the show is review-proof, with much to enjoy for anyone who is up for something slightly different. But ‘circus for grown-ups’ does not equate to ‘circus with maturity’ – a rather schoolboy-like tactic of someone’s underwear being pulled down is the method by which the show arrives at male nudity, having already achieved female nudity without such pranks. It’s followed by embarrassment and a sheepish pulling back up (albeit done creatively) which, although credible in some respects, is at odds with much of the rest of the show’s general ethos of presenting oneself with confidence and assertiveness.

A repeated address to the various genders out there is indicative of the production’s inclusivity: “Ladies, gentlemen and friends beyond the binary”, Westbrook beams. While his charming words bookend the performance, there’s nothing that goes on in between sequences. Some would, I suppose, welcome a production like this that doesn’t do a rain check to see if the audience is ‘all right’ every five minutes. Some circus acts are like television news bulletins – what is to come is announced, before each item is announced in turn, and then a summary of what was just witnessed to bring proceedings to a close. This, at least, wasn’t that, but it seemed to swing too far the other way, leaving the stage rather bare between scenes, and thus leaving the audience sat there awaiting something – anything – to follow.

Awkward silences aside, there are some excellent moments. Jessie McKibbin does well with a whip, getting increasingly close to where the sun doesn’t shine on her male colleagues but nonetheless executing perfect breaks of flowers and other objects, let down only by others’ seeming inability to throw properly. Later, her fire-eating is highly convincing. A balancing act with chairs sees Lyndon Johnson climb to a significant height, while Liam de Jong and Madison Burleigh complete a sophisticated routine on a Cyr wheel with exquisite precision. (And yes, I did have to look up what that metallic ring with a larger diameter than the cast members is called.)

I have no idea what was going on with the lampshades on people’s heads, and something of a talking point afterwards was the open invitation to film proceedings – video: yay, flash photography: nay – aside from, of course, sections involving nudity. Only a few hardy souls were keen on extensive recordings – most seemed happy to sit back and enjoy the live experience, which is, frankly, how it should be.

It’s relatively early evening slot is a tad surprising: I can see how this would work as well as it apparently did at the Fringe with a 9:50pm start. There is some audience participation – as ever, sit in the front row (in an unallocated seating arrangement) at one’s own risk – but the production doesn’t make much use of their willing volunteers, to the point where I wondered why on earth they were brought up in the first place. Overall, it’s fun and enjoyable, for sure, but it doesn’t present London audiences with anything that hasn’t been seen before.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Winner of Best Circus at the 2019 FringeWorld Weeklies and 2018 Adelaide Fringe Weeklies, Rouge is a decadent blend of sensational acrobatics, operatic cabaret and tongue in cheek burlesque.

A non-stop celebration of the astonishing, surprising, subversive and the supremely sexy – Award-winning Australian circus sensation Rouge is heading to London with its outrageous brand of adult circus.

28th August – 15th September 2019


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