Wednesday, November 15, 2017

INFAMOUS - A Cabaret Circus Spectacular

Spiegel Big Top - Majura Park, Canberra, until 17th December 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Since they were introduced into this country by former Canberran, David Bates, spiegeltents have become associated with a particular style of risqué European-style intimate cabaret featuring sensational physical theatre performers.

Taking this concept to a whole new level, “Infamous” is presented in a spectacular, purpose-built tent, in which great care has been taken to provide an exotic ambiance.  The under-cover foyer is equipped with bar facilities, tables and chairs, to allow patrons to gather with their friends to soak up the atmosphere before moving into the performance arena.

Inside, neon outlined arches replace the familiar spiegeltent mirrors. In front of the rows of raked seating, small tables, decorated with warmly glowing candles, surround the ringside, creating a seductive and welcoming atmosphere. Wait-staff bustle around servicing the tables and tempting patrons with colourful concoctions served in fluorescent cocktail glasses. There’s even trays of sweet treats on offer to accompany the popcorn.

Some of the cast of "Infamous" 

“Infamous” is the brainchild of Joseph Ashton, one of the famous Ashton Circus family which has been presenting circuses around Australia for the last 160 years.  In 1998 Joe left the family business, with which he had toured most of his life, to set up his own circus with his wife, Michelle, and two sons, Jordan and Merrick, all of them world-class circus performers.

Joe Ashton has a particular affection for large apparatus circus acts like the flying trapeze and ominously named Wheel of Death. He’s a master of both. Inspired by the success of the spiegeltents in showcasing the skills of virtuoso physical performers with acts requiring only a small space, Joe decided to develop his own large format cabaret cirque, and “Infamous – a cabaret cirque sensation” is the result.

The name says it all. The show opens in a blaze of excitement with the sensational, Wheel of Death, proving as thrilling as its name suggests. It’s a huge apparatus with large circular treadmills on each end. As the wheel spins, Joe’s sons, Jordan and Merrick, nonchalantly juggle clubs, skip with ropes and perform handstands within the treadmills. It’s amazing stuff, but before the audience can catch its collective breath, Joe Ashton himself, jumps onto the outside of one of the treadmills and balances precariously while Jordan and Merrick keep the wheel spinning.  With no safety nets, it looks frighteningly dangerous.

Ashton senior then blindfolds himself, and while the wheel continues to spin, he jumps and skips high above the ground. For a final tour de force, a young woman climbs on to his shoulders and again the Wheel of Death spins them high over the heads of the cheering audience.

From that exciting opening act the pace never falters.  Each act was impeccably presented, beautifully costumed, and of the highest standard. Each was more jaw-dropping than the last.  A pretty singer and her glamorous dance team performed snappy routines as the apparatus for each of the acts was quickly set up or whisked away.

Clever clown, Jessie Grant, delights with his clever routines whether bouncing around in a red balloon, or, dressed elegantly in white tails, careering around the tent chasing an errant spotlight.  A sexy black cat prowls among the audience throughout the show.

Among many memorable, fast-moving acts, juggler, Max Balls, fascinates as he gracefully manipulates glass balls. He returns later with his contortionist partner, Kimtortion, to astonish with heir amazing rag doll act.  Two aerialists make their entrance wearing huge feather wings, only to discard them to perform a graceful duo act in spectacularly brief costumes.

Bekki Ashton and Michelle Jarman in "Infamous" 

However, it is the Ashton brothers, Jordan and Merrik, who perform the most daring and spectacular feats. Both are ridiculously handsome, with impossibly trim, taut and terrific physiques, the legacy of a lifetime of training in circus skills. Both are excellent all round acrobats, and, besides the Wheel of Death, work together in a graceful two-man balancing routine which shows off their incredible strength and grace. Merrik thrills with his slack- wire act nonchalantly juggling rings while climbing a precariously balanced ladder.

Apart from his impressive acrobatic skills, Jordan demonstrates why he’s considered the best flyer in Australia, when he joins the other members of his family, who carry on their world famous tradition as The Flying Ashtons, to perform a series of heart-stopping flying trapeze manoeuvres high above the heads of the audience, to bring the show to an end.

Jordan and Merrik Ashton in "Infamous". 

With “Infamous” Joseph Ashton has brought the art of circus into the 21st century. Although a little more risqué than the Ashtons circuses of old, the “Adults Only” label is mostly to do with strict liquor laws. For those who appreciate circus of the highest quality, don’t miss “Infamous” …and bring Granma .. She’ll love it.

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.