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BWW Review: BACKBONE, Southbank Centre

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BWW Review: BACKBONE, Southbank Centre

BWW Review: BACKBONE, Southbank Centre As the lights fade up on stage in the Royal Festival Hall, nine figures lying supine and inert are revealed, along with a rack of clothes, rocks, silver pails of what appear to be soil and, most curiously, a suit of armour. Suddenly, everything comes to life, including the suit of armour.

In the hubbub of warming up and moving the props into the right positions, the two-piece keyboard and percussion band steadily picks up the rhythm and the company of circus players, dressed in what appear to be street clothes, begin the tumbling, swinging and human towers familiar to audiences of circus acts all over the world.

It's done with the off-hand ease and lack of ceremony that comes from thorough practice and rock-solid trust among the members of the ensemble. It also offers a glimpse into the graft that goes into the rehearsal process, and the audience responds by breaking into spontaneous applause at this seemingly casual opening gambit.

Backbone arrives in the UK on the back of glowing plaudits for the company, Gravity & Other Myths, for award-winning show A Simple Space, which has been performed in more than 24 countries across the world. On the evidence of this thrilling and heart-stopping showing, the praise is more than well deserved.

Circus performance is at the heart of what it does, but unlike other circus troupes, Gravity & Other Myths also prioritises the narrative mode of performance art. The emphasis is on storytelling, not on tricks. In this instance, the word 'backbone' doesn't apply to a rigidity in following a formulaic approach to the art.

Rather, it speaks of a flexibility of conceptual approach, and a liquid fluidity to potentiality of how a body can hold itself in, move through and challenge the bounds time and space with daring virtuosity and incredible stamina.

Even the burliest of the male performers move with a lithe, light-footed grace that has the audience gasping on a collective intake of breath as they provide the foundation for a human tower with a woman balanced on a slender pole by means of just her spine. This is the single moment that coalesces the subtext of the title into concrete feats of derring-do.

Acrobats and dancers are usually seen but not heard, and this is another way that Backbone bucks the trend. There are many points in which the ensemble mutter to each other, audibly communicating with each other - and as a consequence with the audience.

A vignette co-opting the musicians and featuring an elastic band seems like an odd addition to proceedings, and perhaps can best be explained as a bonding game from rehearsals that they decided to keep in the show to reveal the bathos behind the hi-jinks.

Wit and humour abounds within the production too alongside poignancy, playful references to gender (men sometimes don frocks, and an affecting set-piece features one of the women moved around the stage dressed in a steel grey suit) and lyricism.

The unusual colours - turquoise, purple and white - of the lighting are also utilised to spectacular effect by Geoff Cobham. Along with the soil in the buckets, it's used to carve out lanes and circles of performance that demarcate and describe the action on stage.

That, along with the inventive music - which ranges from naive melodies to mournful folk stylings and syncopated jazz - played live by Elliot Zoerner and Shenton Gregory make a show that is seamless in its ability to punch to the heart of human connection.

Backbone is visceral, thrilling and playful. If the exhilarated buzz of the audience's reaction as it left the Festival Hall was anything to go by, it is also a superb night of theatre.

Backbone at Southbank Centre until 19 August

Photo credit: Southbank Centre


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