When the audience enter the performance space at Zoo Playground we are met with a curious sight. A tall, seemingly male-presenting character is beckoning us in. Meanwhile, a performer covered in hair cowers on the floor and on a mattress lays a siren who gazes up at the ceiling.
The tall character (David Munns) takes on the role of a narrator and does a good Vincent Price impersonation. His precise words add to the eerie nature of the show. However this considered language also means that Nights at the Circus feels very slow to start and takes a little while to get going.
We are introduced to the hairy lady (Jasmine Lee). She seems obsessed with an egg and does a peculiar and bizarre dance that underlines this strange, but intriguing atmosphere. The siren (Ellie Mason) remains on the mattress. She uses her hands and caresses her body in a fully expressive physical performance. It is a tactile and intimate segment of the show. At one point the siren turns over and looks directly at the audience. She provokes a reaction and creates an unease with her presentation of the themes of desire and sexuality. Ellie Mason previously won Performance Artist of the Year at the Sexual Freedom Awards 2017 when she first performed this role. Witnessing Nights at the Circus first hand it is obvious why she picked up the accolade.
The characters that are presented make the show feel more like a travelling freak show as opposed to the circus that is suggested in the title. A siren and a hairy lady don’t exactly feel like circus performers, but the aesthetic of Nights at the Circus is compelling never the less. The performance may actually be alluding to the Angela Carter novel of the same name, but this is not obvious on the stage. The show is presented by Spare Tyre, a company that includes people who are underrepresented in the arts. Nights at the Circus employs learning disabled actors in the performance and their presence on stage is magical and alluring.
At just over 45 minutes Nights at the Circus feels like a very brief show. With only three performers, maybe the inclusion of someone else on the stage would have expanded the narrative and allowed the audience a further glimpse into this strange and inviting world.