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Review of Becoming Shades at the Vaults Festival

Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Lidia Crisafulli)
Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Lidia Crisafulli)

Having not seen much contemporary circus over the years, recently I got to see two in a week! On Wednesday I saw Cirque Du Soleil’s latest production, Ovo at The Royal Albert Hall and on Friday, I went to see Becoming Shades as part of The Vault Festival under Waterloo Station.

Now you wouldn’t think that a production with an enormous budget and a cast of dozens at one of the biggest venues in London would have anything in common with a show that probably has a minuscule budget, a cast of just seven (plus two musician/singers) at a tiny venue in Waterloo – but remarkably there is.

Both shows are basically various circus acts linked by a theme. In the case of Ovo it’s the insect world and in Becoming Shades it’s the story from Greek mythology of Persephone and her presumed seduction by Hades. They both feature acts that fly from straps hung from the ceiling (although the one at the Albert Hall is lot higher than the one in The Vaults), swirling acrobatics using a ring hung from the ceiling (although spectacularly the one in
Becoming Shades was on fire), some contemporary dance, amazing gyrations and original music.

Although there are these similarities, there are of course major differences. Whilst the audience is static at the Albert Hall, in The Vaults, the audience is moved around becoming immersed with the performers and are incredibly close to the action. Before entering The Forge (the largest venue in The Vaults), we’re all given a black surgical mask and told to put it on; presumably to counter the effects of the fumes from the fire sticks and rings used during the performance). Then on entering the darkness, we were met by three Furies and Charon, an alien-like creature in a mask with illuminated eyes and hands. There’s ethereal music playing, and the voice of Charon tells us to follow the light. We’re then led deeper into the dark, dank space and the show begins in earnest with some contemporary dance from Rebecca Rennison as “Persephone”. Then we’re led as if on board a boat on the Styx (creatively represented by a rope pulled by the Furies) to another part of the auditorium where a pole is set up and Lost Soul (Anna McDonnell) does some remarkable pole dancing.

She’s so supple and strong that it’s a misnomer to call it dancing – it’s really pole gymnastics and it’s quite spell-binding. Then at various times, performers hanging from the ceiling on elasticated straps which is mesmerising as the two protagonists contort their bodies writhing and thrashing up and down the straps – at times seemingly defying gravity and synchronised movement with fiery wands!

Chivaree Circus’s all female cast (“Hades” has had a sex-change for this production) are all superb. Apart from those I’ve mentioned previously, the three Furies (Rosie Bartley, Isobel Midnight and Jessica Pearce) are all excellent and perform various gymnastics as well as directing the audience around the space with their spooky “hellhound” head-dresses and lighted dog collars. Molly Beth Morosa must be even hotter than Hades in her
claustrophobic full-head mask and illuminated gloves.

The superb music is supplied by Sam West and Becks Johnstone both of who sing and play guitar aided and abetted at times by a Brian Eno like ambient backing track. Johnstone’s operatic tones mesh perfectly with West’s gruffer vocals and the music drives the action along, providing the perfect accompaniment to the eerie goings on in the dark, clammy vault.

Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Maximilian Webster)
Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Maximilian Webster)

As I said at the top, there are definite comparisons to be made between the mega-productions that we’ve come to expect from Cirque Du Soleil and the much smaller production from Chivaree Circus and on the whole, I enjoyed the visceral, close-up qualities of the latter more than the detached, impersonal production of the former. In comparing these two productions, I’d say, less is definitely more.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

Chivaree Circus return to VAULT Festival with a brand new and extended version of Becoming Shades, taking audiences on an immersive underworld journey in the long dark tunnels of Waterloo’s Vaults.

Based on the classical myth of Persephone, Becoming Shades is a bold re-imagining that fuses together live music, physical theatre, aerial acrobatics, fire, dance and mime. Journey down the River Styx and join these lost souls in the underworld.

In the original myth Hades kidnapped Persephone but this radical re-telling will subvert the power structure placing Persephone in control, at the centre of the story, leading to her true realisation as The Queen of Shades. Told through contemporary circus, Becoming Shades is a story of empowerment, love and choice.

Becoming Shades
Performance Dates Wednesday 24th January – Sunday 18th March 2018
Running Time 90 minutes
Location VAULT Festival, The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN


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