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Circus Review: Scotch & Soda (London Wonderground, London)

scotch & soda Rock around the top. The cast of 'Scotch & Soda'. Photograph: Courtesy of Matilda Temperly.
scotch & soda

Rock around the big top. The cast of ‘Scotch & Soda’. Photograph: Courtesy of Matilda Temperly.

In A Nutshell

Scotch & Soda is a sumptuous ragbag of razzmatazz. Music and miraculous circus infuse to make a potent and gasp-inducing cocktail.

Overview

Company 2 and Underbelly Productions return to the infamous Spiegeltent that is London Wonderground, combing the talents behind their smash hit successes of Cantina and LIMBO respectively. Scotch & Soda is a world inspired by real historical characters and stories from the turn of 20th century Australian circus scene, blending an original score and music performances by Ben Walsh and the Crusty Suitcase Band.

Concept

London Wonderground is renowned for their high-flying circus headliners since it began in 2012, and inviting circus troupe Company 2 back to the Big Smoke after Cantina continues their dedication to producing some simply astonishing circus. But rather than just getting up and performing tricks, Company 2 and Underbelly Productions has made Scotch & Soda as equally about the music as it is the stunts. In such circus shows there’s always a bit of a pacing issue about what to do between the set-ups for each routine. Sometimes comic interludes and other intermezzos in other shows can feel a little segued, awkward, and somewhat unnecessary. However, given that Walsh’s music is treated as equal to the circus skills on show, Scotch & Soda’s transitions are filled with this music rather than stale triviality. By doing so, there’s very little dropping of pace or misplaced feeling of scene, meaning Scotch & Soda free-pours effortlessly from start to finishing without any spillage.

scotch & soda

On your bike! The cast of ‘Scotch & Soda’. Photograph: Courtesy of Sam Young Photography.

Furthermore, Scotch and Soda isn’t a show where acts are performed in contextual isolation. Whilst there isn’t a narrative in Scotch & Soda per se, what Company 2 and Underbelly Productions has done is create strong individual characters for each performer. What this does is add an extra dimension of intrigue as these characters interact and fill the Spiegeltent with their personalities: acrobats and musicians alike. With the breadth and variety of personalities on stage, it’s difficult to lose interest in anything going on at any given point. Scotch & Soda’s characters are a real ragbag bunch of misfits and oddities, and their personalities are as compelling and playful as the circus and music performances themselves. This technique is an incredibly effective way of extending circus into something much more dramatic, making Scotch and Soda a wonderfully edifying show.

Production

Company 2 and Underbelly Productions have really created a colourful setting for Scotch & Soda and carried this concept deep into the show’s aesthetics. The costumes are particularly astonishing, even for what are essentially bits frayed and torn attire of the late 1800s circus down-and-outs. Couple this with ragged props and scenery, and the overall illusion of vibrant Victorian vagrancy is as luscious as the music and performance themselves. A lot of thought and effort has gone into Scotch & Soda and the end result is a rambunctious and dazzling high-end circus headliner that exceeds imagination.

The only problem with Scotch & Soda is that despite its looks and its skill, its perhaps not as heady as previous London Wonderground shows. LIMBO was dressed in a dangerous and unstoppable hedonism that resulted in a punch-drunk tsunami of style and substance. Likewise, Briefs: The Second Coming was a high-camp abandon of shocking sexuality. Scotch & Soda, by comparison, is a little less flamboyant in energy and a bit more laid back and wholesome, despite unexpected flashes of full-frontal male nudity. But there’s a real focus on the skills involved rather than trying to create too flashy a spectacle. The music is invigorating and exciting, and the circus stunts are absolutely astonishing. Audible gasps are commonplace throughout as some of the stunts are literally unbelievable. Whilst you’ll come away as wowed and astonished as with any other London Wonderground show, you just don’t feel as fizzing and breathless, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe it’s a little unfair to make a critical comparison to other shows, as in its own right Scotch & Soda is superlative. But it does fall a smidgen short of the adrenaline rush that London Wonderground has pedalled previously.

scotch & soda

Strike out the band. The cast of ‘Scotch & Soda’. Photograph: Courtesy of Sam Young Photography.

Performances

Each set of performers bring their own unique talents and execute them with daring finesse and supernatural affinity. But its the sense of character that acrobats and musicians exude that really make them stand out for general circus fayre. David Carberry and Skip Walker Milne have a cheeky rivalrous rapport as the two brothers, Chelsea McGuffin’s character is commanding yet jaggedly elegant, and Mozes’ The Bush Stranger is ecstatically unhinged. Likewise, in the band Walsh’s crusty yet charismatic hobo drummer really invigorates the music with beats and peasantry, Eden Ottingnon is grubby yet gorgeous as the adorable The Young Hope, and Matthew Ottingnon is slyly enigmatic as the instrumental fixer.

Walsh and the Crusty Suitcase Band really do deserve a special mention in Scotch & Soda. Their performances are those of musicians at the top of their game: flawless and bursting with effortless pizzazz and groove. They’re by no means background audio fodder in Scotch & Soda, and Company 2 and Underbelly Productions are quite right to make them an integral a part of the show. It’s just as well, because nothing would be able to suppress them into a noisy corner even if they tried.

Other than that, the circus involved is really out there. There are plenty of routines that look impossible and often painful. These are performers who are really pushing their limits of ability as well as the possibilities that circus can achieve. Highlights include the narrow margins of flesh that Mozes uses to balance and hang from a trapeze, and also a blistering fight sequence between McGuffin, Carberry, and Walker Milne that results in a vortex of limbs and bodies flying all over the shop.

Official Theatre interviews Chelsea McGuffin.

Verdict

A frantic and dazzling kaleidoscope of music and circus, Scotch & Soda is intoxicating and unbelievable.

Scotch & Soda plays at the London Wonderground, London, SE1 8XX, until 2 August 2015. Tickets are from £12.50. To book, visit www.londonwonderground.co.uk.

This review was made possible by Official Theatre.

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