In this 250th anniversary year of circus, Underbelly Festival on the Southbank, itself celebrating a milestone, has put this form of entertainment at the heart of its season. Headlining is Soap from Base Berlin, a family friendly-ish production that has been on the go for a good ten years, giving them plenty of time to perfect the act.
A series of acts really, all loosely based around bathing. The five bath tubs that sit on stage are moved around occasionally to provide various platforms for different elements of the show, Adem Endris Yeman stands atop an overturned tub to juggle eight? (I lost count) balls at once, while Anton Belyakov uses another like a pummel horse.
The advantage, or perhaps disadvantage to those sitting near the front, is that it involves water so there’s plenty of splashing around and the audience does get a little wet, though not quite to Splash Mountain proportions. The water element does look strikingly good, especially in moments like Daniel Leo Stern’s aerial acrobatics, where the lighting and rain shower combine to make something visually stunning. It also provides great comedy value, it was almost as entertaining to watch the front row constantly pulling plastic sheeting over themselves every time a new act came on, as it was watching the actual artistes.
Comedy is at the heart of Soap, even the naked towel dance is played for laughs rather than titillation, and compère for the evening Marie-Andrée Lemarie is the consummate clown. Directors Markus Pabst and Maximilian Rambaek have struck a balance between the serious business of acrobatics and the lighter side of entertainment. Between Lena Ries’s nature defying contortionism and Vanessa Alvarez’s astonishing towel spinning (two on hands, two on feet) there are sillier moments, such as Jennifer Lindshield’s operatic interludes where Handel’s Messiah becomes ‘Splishiah’.
For all the irreverent moments, there are an equal number of astonishing and stand out physical feats. In the finale Mortiz Haase performs the most beautiful routine on a swing trapeze, which left the audience completely enchanted, with the stage soaked and Haase demonstrating considerable ability, even the drenched front row were won over.
Soap may play it for laughs, but amongst the comedy there is a real sense of what circus should represent, it can appeal to everyone. For all the perfectly toned bodies on stage, it remains good clean fun, and audiences can submerge themselves in the fun and silliness of it, whilst appreciating the artform.