It was the beginning of the Pulse Festival 2015. The opening show was Bromance, which was billed as a trio of acrobatic circus performers. The three of them had filmed a parkour run from Ipswich station to the New Wolsey Theatre and put it on YouTube. The video went viral and the show sold out. Over a quarter of the audience were coming to the Wolsey for the first time. Expectations were high.
When we entered the auditorium the stage was set very simply: just three folding chairs at the back and a Cyr wheel lying on the floor. Named after circus acrobat Patrick Cyr, the wheel is a single, large metal hoop almost two metres across. Initially, the three fit young men of Barely Methodical Troupe used the wheel as nothing more than a prop; a way to bound the space in which they explored the latent complexities of that simple greeting: the handshake.
The opening was small and contained. Then handshakes became foundations for martial arts tricks and Bboying moves. Bboying is the insider name for breakdancing. Extreme dance and acrobatics are hard to differentiate and the distinction may not matter. One of the acrobatic styles used here is known as hand-to-hand, which seems hugely appropriate in this context. Hand-to-hand involves a pair of artistes; one balances and somersaults on the hands of the other. Any pairing excludes the third member of the trio and this exclusion of the third wheel was explored with the mischievous wit that we had seen in the handshake sequence.
Several people have described the show as 'blokey' and it is this reliance on stereotypical masculinity that gives the piece its power. Intimacy is not an obvious subject for a circus show but here it is explored more as a matter of gender than of sexuality. Much of the dangerous acrobatics rely on mutual trust in the skill and timing of the performers; the link between trust and friendship is part of the show and is just one of the many aspects of male bonding that are woven into a playfully profound expression of masculine relationships. Even the essentially solitary nature of the bravura performance inside the spinning aluminium wheel is exploited with ingenuity.
An essential part of the show's appeal is the way that these three men bring such personal differences into a winning combination. They differ in physique, height, and the technical disciplines from which they come but their immaculate timing and charming confidence caused the Wolsey audience to gasp with admiration. Such audible appreciation happens rarely in British art houses but it could be heard several times in this amazing hour. The promotional material had mentioned that this debut show had won a Total Theatre Award at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival but this had not prepared us for its sheer virtuosity. The skill of each performer is outstanding and their technique is astonishing.
The trio are Beren d’Amico, Louis Gift, and Charlie Wheeller, all of whom graduated recently from the National Centre for Circus Arts (more commonly known as The Circus Space) in Hoxton. The Circus Space awards Bachelor of Arts honours degrees in Circus Arts.
At 22, Charlie Wheeller is the youngest of the three. Born in Southampton, he took up Bboying as a teenager and studied A-level dance. Instead of going to university he attended The Circus Space, where he learned acrobatics and the Cyr wheel while he developed his dancing skills.
Louis (aged 24) comes from Holloway in North London and succeeded at various competitive sports before taking up parkour and freerunning. Although his father is Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift, he did not discover musical theatre until he was 16 when he combined acting, dance, and acrobatics in college musicals. At The Circus Space he specialised as a hand to hand base while maintaining his other skills. He is the tallest of the trio with the greatest physical presence.
Beren's parents were circus people. He practiced Taekwondo in South London as a child and found that he preferred the performance aspect of tricking over competitive combat. He studied acting and stage combat at East 15 Drama School before entering the degree course at The Circus Space. While there he was paired with Louis in hand-to-hand. Like most acrobatic fliers his height is below average but he is the oldest member of the team and, arguably, his role is the most hazardous.
Individually they are remarkable. Collectively they are awe-inspiring. By the end I wanted to shake their hands or hug them but I settled for joining the well-deserved standing ovation.