It seems sadly fitting that our journey into the centre of Bristol takes us past the rubble-piled site of The Old Firestation, the former home of The Invisible Circus. Spending years with the promise of this waiting in the shadows, they defiantly turned the empty shell of that corner plot into a magic portal, with their audiences consistently arriving at the gates in droves to be transported from the dark of the city street.
These shows have since lost their names to other memories, but I vividly remember the intensity of the experience. After spending days constructing costumes, we stepped through those gates alongside other bedecked revellers into the festooned courtyard. The tumbledown service building was remade again and again; once the yard was a bustling cacophony of Victorian-esque carnival stalls and vendors, with the merry tunes of their standout band washing down from their sky-high cell, dressed in prison stripes. Next it was the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, the crisp November night full of painted faces, candles and vibrant orange marigolds. Finally, we stepped through into a grimey Steampunk future; each time we revellers were treated to a sparkling display of circus talent – high wire, trapeze, silks, slackline, acrobats – all strung together by the slightly sinister but simultaneously jovial Ringmaster of Ceremonies.
Having been so absorbed by these immersive promenade shows, I was unsure how this would translate into a theatre setting. As the hubbub of voices died down around us in the pit of the theatre, a knot of nervous excitement formed in my stomach. The simple backlit white cloth of the curtain cast the distorted shadows of our newest characters out into the audience. Appearing out of the dark with his squashed top hat and joker’s grin, our narrator would again be the Ringmaster; the Puppeteer. His gritty voice filled the theatre with a collection of witty opening lines artfully delivered; I knew right there and then I was not to be disappointed.
The hapless heroes of this tale were steadily introduced, their histories formed by skilfully choreographed movements and carefully delivered words. My throat closed up for the first of many times as the life of a child was literally unwound by the players with a simple length of white swaddling pulled from the mother’s arms. These heartwrenching moments were balanced by the gleeful and the joyful – one young girl’s quest for a tantalising red balloon ran alongside another’s sweet-tooth temptation – a Hansel and Gretel trail of candy canes laid by the Ringmaster.
These candid, poignant yarns of the different characters’ were woven cleverly together into a captivating tapestry, accented by the seemingly effortless skills of the circus troupe. The girl seeking the red balloon is freed by the trapeze, the wild-eyed wolf girl escapes her group of captors via her breathtaking pole performance and the sweet-toothed daughter cuts the strings of the Puppeteer. In time the broken-hearted mother reigns her grief and flies skyward on an umbrella of ebony crows; the guild-ridden father unmasks his shame to the applause of his mastery of the slackline. The Puppeteer’s hounded attendant climbs free of his ropes in unbridled, gleeful expression on the ukelele. And all the while, the frankly outstanding band draws out the emotions of the audience, leading us in a wandering journey through the joy and heartache, ultimately conquering the Ringmaster on behalf of the others.
This dark and beautiful narrative was both tragic and ecstatic, moving me from uncontrollable laughter to the point of tears. Not for the first time in my life I want to run away with the circus; had it not been the final night, I would have undoubtedly returned for another performance (if not just stayed forever). The Invisible Circus had yet again transported me, this time without me even having left my seat.