As a reviewer I prefer to go into a show knowing as little as possible about it. This can have its downsides. A while ago I went to see the Donmar Warehouse’s Henry IV Part 1, featuring an all female cast, with absolutely zero knowledge.
So when it became apparent that there was a framing story in which the performers were convicts in a women’s prison putting this show on, at first I genuinely didn’t know if that was part of the performance or true. I was rather disappointed when it turned out to be just part of the performance – the women were all professional actors (to be honest, I’d already recognised two, but wondered if they were just there to add some ballast, as it were).
Later one of the performers collapsed just beyond the wings, and everyone on stage reacted as if this were real, but in my own uncertainty I didn’t know how to respond – was this, too, just part of the show? Eventually we realised not, not least because the pause while it was resolved was longer than it would have been had it been purely theatrical, and because the subsequent message to the audience operated outside the conceit of the performers being inmates of a women’s prison. For a while though my sympathy had been misplaced, or rather it had been mistakenly withheld from someone who had just collapsed on stage, clearly in a measure of real distress.
This blending of reality and fiction, and the ambiguities that result, came back to me when I was watching another all female play, No Show. Featuring a group of superb acrobats, No Show provides hugely impressive physical feats along with commentary on both the acrobatics themselves and the realities of being a female acrobat and circus performer.
There is a great deal of charisma on stage, as well as talent and physical ability, but the greatest charisma comes from Alice, who reprises several times through the show a piece of hugely impressive static work, while two other performers stand off to one side and, with a sickly, passive aggressive attitude, critique her work as if giving notes during a rehearsal. Clearly this is meant to be evocative of the kind of things these performers go through, and it certainly evokes sympathy, while highlighting just how impressive Alice’s performance – a series of manoeuvres while hand-standing on two poles – really is. It also allows that performers charisma to shine through as this is definitely the most dramatic (or perhaps melodramatic, as it has clear division between hero and villain) piece.
Equally affecting is the monologue by another performer describing her treatment (and that of other professional acrobats) on a TV show, and the wider prejudice and discrimination female performers suffer in this field (as, of course, in many others).
Because of these interludes, and the similar insights provided by the other cast members, it is without doubt the performers, not the performances, that hold centre stage. That is not to say that the acrobats, the skill, strength and sheer physicality on display isn’t mindblowing – it is. But because of the humanising effect of these interludes, and the sheer charisma on display, as well as the intimacy of the Soho Theatre, those performances are intrinsically linked to the performers.
The remarkable physical feats in this show are beyond impressive, but more impressive still are the people performing them.
More details available here: https://sohotheatre.com/shows/no-show/