Tag Archives: circus

Waiting for Guido with aerial artist Avi

Becky Fury, Geoff Steel and Johnathan Richardson are Waiting For Guido at the Cockpit Theatre

On Monday night, Malcolm Hardee Award winner Becky Fury is presenting a show called Waiting For Guido at the Cockpit Theatre in London. It is billed as:

“Fusing comic improvisation from world class performers, a little sprinkling of circus performance and an improvised musical score. This is Jesus and the Easter bunny waiting for the return of the enigmatic and insurrectionary battery chicken, Guido. In a basic story structure inspired by Waiting for Godot, Dada and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, we present an evening of entertainment, theatrical innovation and carefully curated chaos.”

Johnathan Richardson, Becky Fury, Geoff Steel in rehearsal

As well as comics Trevor Lock, Johnathan Richardson, Geoff Steel and Becky, there is music by a house band featuring Bang Crosby and aerial acts from “contortionist and rope and hoop expert” Avital Hannah.

Aerial acts? I thought. Aerial acts? So I went to the National Centre for Circus Arts in London to see Becky and Avital talk through and swing through what might be happening on Monday.


JOHN: So what is Waiting For Guido?

BECKY: It’s basically a cabaret show with some theatrical comedy vignettes. A contemporary freakshow inspired by Principa Discordia and the Dogme manifesto. This one’s more Catme but I always have to be so extra. Everything’s not so much falling into place but descending in beautiful yet bizarre shapes and landing elegantly in place.

JOHN: What’s the narrative?

BECKY: Waiting.

JOHN: What is Avi doing? Just hanging around?

AVI: Hanging from the rafters.

BECKY: She will be mirroring some of the characters in the show. Everyone has a character. It’s a hybrid cabaret comedy circus show.

Avi at the National Centre for Circus Arts

JOHN: Why did you decide being an aerial artist was a good career choice?

AVI: I kind of decided on a whim… I had gone to college to study law, psychology, philosophy and critical thinking. I thought: There’s a future for me as an aerial artist because I’m highly-strung and not very good at letting go. And I thought: If I go to circus school then I can do what I want but I still get a qualification.

JOHN: Did the glamour of circus attract you?

AVI: No.

JOHN: So what was the attraction?

AVI: The ownership of my own body.

JOHN: Define that.

AVI: It was really positive for reclaiming my body as a woman. I had often felt it was ‘owned’ by other people. I’m definitely in control of it now. It will always be more useful to me than anyone else. Before circus, that had not necessarily always been apparent.

JOHN: ‘Being in control of your own body’ sounds like it might overlap into hatred of men.

AVI: Well, to some extent I think it’s a feminist answer but I think it’s just as a human I have my right to own my own body and this has enabled me to do so.

JOHN: Where is the career in being an aerial artist outside a circus? You can’t play the upstairs room of a suburban pub.

Waiting For Guido in rehearsal

AVI: No, but there’s corporate gigs, the corporate circuit at Christmas time, charity gigs, Council things and it’s more integrated into theatre and dance than it used to be. There are circus shows in the West End. There’s TV and film stuff. It’s quite broad; you’ve just gotta know where to look.

JOHN: Corporate gigs?

AVI: Making posh people’s parties look cooler. If you can get someone to hang off the ceiling, it looks good.

JOHN: Is there a career path?

AVI: I’m interested in the production side. I’m really interested in production management and directing, producing.

JOHN: How do you two know each other?

BECKY: From festivals. The DIY culture. The Unfairground stage at the Glastonbury Festival.

JOHN: There is a lot of twirling involved in what you do.

AVI: I find it easier to learn things on the left. It’s generally easier to rotate one way. I generally spin to the right but there are certain tricks that require me to spin to the left and that’s fine; it’s just a different type of training.

JOHN: Is that something to do with the left side of your brain controlling the right side of the body and vice versa?

AVI: I don’t know, but there are certain things you can do to make them talk to each other a bit better.

JOHN: Such as?”

Becky shoots Avi at the National Centre for Circus Arts

AVI: Stand up and stand on one leg with your eyes closed and then try standing on the other leg. You will be better doing it on one side than the other. Then open your eyes and bring your thumb towards them until it’s uncomfortable to see it and do that three times. Keep your thumb really steady while doing it. Then try standing on one leg again. It should be way more even between left and right. It tricks your brain somehow.

BECKY: It must realign everything into a balance because you have to focus on the thumb straight-on rather than left and right sides and one of your eyes being lazy.

AVI: I don’t know. It seems to work.

JOHN: Have you got public liability insurance if you fall on someone?

AVI: Only if I’m performing. Not in normal life.

BECKY: Everyone should have it. A friend of mine was performing at a Secret Policeman’s Ball show. He threw rice during the show and someone slipped on a grain of rice in their stiletto shoe and broke their ankle. Luckily he had public liability insurance, because they sued him.

JOHN: Why are your powdering your ear?

AVI: I always put make-up on my ear lobes before a show. You don’t want red ears when you go upside down. Blood goes to them when you are upside down.

JOHN: Ah… Why are you in Becky’s show? It’s basically a comedy show.

AVI: It’s different. I wanna see what happens.

JOHN: Yes indeed.

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AIM – The end of the Iceman’s live act? + Van Gogh and the boxing kangaroos

The Iceman holds a Christmas card inside the Festival Hall.

Iceman holds a Christmas card inside the Royal Festival Hall. (And why shouldn’t he?)

At the beginning of December last year, I received 10 e-mails and 22 JPEGs of paintings of blocks of ice from my speciality act chum The Iceman. His stage act involves melting blocks of ice. That is his entire act. I blogged about it.

He said he was now calling himself AIM – Anthony Irvine Man – and suggested I should write a new blog entitled:

THE PAINTER FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE ICEMAN BREAKS/DOUBLES VINCENT VAN GOGH’S RECORD, SELLING 2 PAINTINGS IN HIS LIFETIME.

Since then, we have had a chat about it. We met in the Topolski Gallery/Bar under Waterloo Bridge in London.

“You told me the man who bought your painting,” I said, “was going to explain why.”

“Yes. He wrote to me,” said The Iceman, taking out a piece of paper. “He says: The paintings of The Iceman are honest, charming and…”

“Cheap?” I suggested.

One of The Iceman’s acclaimed paintings

“Honest, charming and fascinating” – his faux-naïf paintings

“No,” said the Iceman. “I got him into three figures…The paintings of The Iceman are honest, charming and fascinating. He is an artist whose practice has developed at a glacial rate over a lifetime and each act seems considered but not over-thought. His fixation on ice, the melting process and how that relates to him – his life experience – in a symbolic way – is intriguing and perhaps even deep…

“He wants to buy a second picture. He says: The faux-naïf handling of paint is suggestive of Basquiat or perhaps Dubuffet and art brut. In any case, it is defiantly anti-slick or perhaps anti-consumerist. It is refreshingly populist work, like a kind of ascetically-charged graffiti, piquant piracy, shades of Nolan’s Ned Kelly series.

“So you are at last being properly considered as a serious artist?” I asked.

“Yes. I feel it’s time to do a proper exhibition. I’ve done about 137 paintings now. They need to be displayed en masse. I have finally found my métier. I think I am just going to keep producing. My subject matter is rather consistent.”

“Blocks of ice,” I said.

“Yes,” said The Iceman.

“So are you not going to do live performances any more?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. I never realised I was a painter until this late in life.”

“If Hitler had realised his destiny was to be a painter,” I suggested, “we wouldn’t have had all that trouble.”

The Iceman in his studio earlier this year

The Iceman hard at work in his outdoor English studio in 2014

“I am thinking,” said The Iceman, “of increasing production: doing one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.”

“Won’t that devalue your unit retail cost?” I asked.

“You are right,” mused the Iceman. “Maybe I should slow production down instead.”

“All your paintings are based on photographs?” I asked.

“Yes. Stills of my blocks of ice. Or stills of moving pictures of my blocks of ice. I could not paint without the photo.”

“Why not?”

“Actually,” he said thoughtfully, “that might be my next series of paintings. The imagination series. I think I have developed my own style.” There was a long pause. “I don’t know what my style is, but it is recognisable. On my website, I’ve got every painting I’ve ever done. I sold one photo off my website – Block 183 – so, technically, I have sold two pictures: one was an oil painting and one was a photograph.”

“You are on a roll,” I said encouragingly. “How have you survived financially?”

“I work with teenagers,” said The Iceman. “It’s educational work. Helping them realise their potential. But I don’t play football.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I have done some odd things,” The Iceman continued. “I did a boxing kangaroo act. I was the referee in a duo with a live kangaroo. Circo Moira Orfei in Italy. She was a fading film star. I had to go round saying Cugino! Cugino! Her cousin was called Filippo.”

“Did you live in a tent or in a caravan?” I asked.

“I lived in a truck with the kangaroo – there was a partition. We had a kangaroo and then collected a younger one from the airport, so I ended up living in the truck with two kangaroos. The poor young one got a lot of rollicking from the older one.”

“How long were you with the kangaroos?” I asked.

“A couple of months. I had to run away on Christmas Day.”

“Why?”

“I had a fracas in the audience and the acrobats were angry because it was at the moment of their ‘death-defying balance’ and so they were all out to get me because I caused them to stumble. I ran away and they ran after me running away, but they didn’t catch me.”

“It’s not their area of expertise,” I suggested.

“I suppose not,” said The Iceman.

“Tell me more about the boxing kangaroo,” I prompted.

A kangaroo boxing poster from the 1890s

A proud tradition – a poster from the 1890s

“We did the routine in a proper boxing ring and we knocked each other out – the other guy, Filippo, and me – quite a slick physical banging routine. Then I had to get the kangaroo by its tail and drag it into the ring. The first day, one of the roustabouts from Morocco tripped me up and I fell on the kangaroo’s bottom, which got a big laugh. Once the kangaroo was in the ring, I was supposed to give him his mating call and irritate him and dig him in the ribs. Then he gets angry and tries to get hold of Filippo.”

“Why didn’t he try to get hold of you?”

“Because Filippo was teasing him as well and he was more experienced in annoying the kangaroo.  Filippo told me I was too kind to the kangaroo in the ring. The poor thing had boxing gloves on, so it looked like he was boxing but he was trying to grab Filippo round the neck. Sometimes, he would get him round the neck and one of my jobs was to release the forepaws if the kangaroo was really angry. If the kangaroo was really, really angry, he might hold onto Filippo with his forepaws and kick him to death with his hind legs. Kangaroos have very strong hind legs but their forepaws are less strong.”

“You did this job just for kicks?” I asked.

“There was a lot of comedy,” said The Iceman, “because he would kick Filippo and I, as referee, had to tell the kangaroo off.”

“You never got kicked?” I asked.

“Not seriously. His irritation was more directed at Filippo… I have slightly mixed feelings talking about all this. It is quite sad when you think about it. But I was young. The animals I felt sorriest for were the tigers. The circus had elephants who killed some of the people.”

Death defying circus stunts were common back in the day

Death defying circus stunts were common

“In the audience?”

“No, the people looking after them. But the tigers just went round and round. Terrible conditions, really. I’m not really very pro-circus, animal-wise. Looking back, it was all a bit sad, really. That image of the tigers is the one that haunts me most. They had gone mad and were going round and round and round.”

“You toured with this circus?” I asked.

“Not for very long, because I had to run away from the acrobats.”

“When was this?”

“Around 1980.”

“When circuses were circuses.”

“Yes. So many animals. Birds, vultures and incredible trapeze artists. There was a clown who played the saw. Every cliché.”

“Why were you working in this circus?” I asked.

“I used to go to clown workshops at the Oval House in London. To me, to be a proper clown in a big circus was my apotheosis. Is that the right word?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Why an Italian circus?”

“Because I met the mother of a clown. His father had died in the ring.”

“Killed by an elephant?”

“I have no idea. It seems unlikely.”

“That was your only circus experience?”

“Yes. I moved on…”

“To…?”

“Experimental theatre. In those days, there were a lot of small-scale touring theatres.”

Iceman painting - “I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”

“I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”

“You should paint kangaroos,” I suggested.

“No. Only ice blocks. That’s my genre. To depart from that would spell doom. Each picture I have done is unique.”

“They are all blocks of ice,” I pointed out.

“But they are each unique,” said The Iceman. “I have never painted anything without quite a strong feeling.”

“Quite a strong feeling of…?” I asked.

There was a pause. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “That is a very good question…. Maybe a feeling of bringing something alive long after the event when it existed.”

“Giving eternal life to a transient thing?”

“That could be it,” agreed The Iceman.

“Let’s assume it is,” I suggested.

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Critic Kate Copstick attacked in Kenya

I have received a reaction to yesterday’s blog, in which I wrote about the frustration of trying to enter a London Evening Standard competition to take a flight into space, about a woman standing next to a Post Office pillar box, about comedian Bob Slayer in his underpants and about an excellent performance in London by Red Bastard, the talk of the recent Edinburgh Fringe.

Today, I am off to Leamington Spa for one of the occasional ‘Auction of Horrors’ run at The Old Elephant House in that most refined of towns. On the auction list today are 367 items including an animatronic alley cat, a vampire killing kit, a painting of the Kray Twins, letters from the Titanic, a human kneebone walking stick and Wasp Boy’s swallowed sword from the Circus of Horrors. The Old Elephant House bills itself as, among other things, “exclusive sellers of stage-used Circus of Horrors props, costumes and memorabilia”.

Circus of Horrors poster in the auction

A very non-PC Circus of Horrors poster – It is in the auction

Fantasy and quirkiness are entertaining.

I have to leave early to drive up to Leamington Spa which leaves little time to write this blog.

Fortunately, a message arrived from Kenya which I think is worth printing.

It was from comedy critic Kate Copstick, who oft-times pops up in this blog and who runs a Kenyan charity called Mama Biashara. As well as health care projects, Mama Biashara helps poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses which may give them a lift to a better life. Copstick spends a large percentage of her time (unpaid) working for the charity in London and Kenya, where she has been for the past few weeks.

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

Critic Kate Copstick in Kenya

The message from Copstick is complimentary. Normally that would preclude it from appearing. But what she says is:

Thank you for the blogs. They are keeping me sane here. Been robbed while I slept by a thief who hid in the house where I was staying, had to flee armed robbers waiting outside a workshop to get me, had mothers with sick children being threatened that of they let the Mzungu (white person) help them there will be ‘consequences’ and last night I was gang mugged by about 15 young guys while an entire traffic jam of people looked on. Not my best visit. Will tell all exclusively to you as soon as I stop having flashbacks.

This perhaps puts my jolly trip to Leamington Spa today for the ‘Auction of Horrors’ into a more realistic perspective of inconsequential superficiality.

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Why Charmian Hughes is back for an erotic dance at the Edinburgh Fringe, but without dog, tortoise or husband

Yesterday, I had tea with Charmian Hughes at the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh.

It is twenty years since she last performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Last time I was here,” she told me, “I got a review on an airline magazine that someone saw six months later; I’ve never seen it myself.”

The show was called Greyfriars Bobby Speaks to the World.

“I had my dog Arthur with me on stage,” she explained. “He was quite old and he just sat there. It started with the theme music from Lawrence of Arabia and I pushed him on and he had a camel hump bag on his back. In the show, he was called Catharsis: Dog of Love and Healing. I hung the whole show round that. Every so often he was supposed to channel the thoughts of Greyfriars Bobby.

“It was a 50-seater and, in the first two weeks, maybe 7 or 8 people would come in each day. Then, after that, I had 50 people in every night. I have no idea why. But I also got children in because I had mis-directed with the title. I had lots of irate parents trying to get their children in because they had thought it was a children’s show.”

Charmian is back this year with her show The Ten Charmandments in which she allegedly gives her audience the benefit of her own esoteric wisdom… and it also includes an erotic dance, of which more later.

“I’ve had to wait all this time – twenty years – to get away from my children,” she told me.

“When I go to perform at the Glastonbury Festival, I take my children and my husband David but, even though they are meant to be self-reliant, I spend my whole time looking after them. Or watching them go off to have fun while I go off to work.

“This year was the first year my younger daughter – 14 – could hang out on her own with my husband holding the fort. David can’t come up because the dog – this is another dog – has already been in kennels because we went on holiday just before I came up here and he is a bit emotional. He has been very difficult, but now he is in his own space where he feels he doesn’t need to react to other dogs with violence. He’s very calm and peaceful. But, to keep him that way, David can never go out while I’m away; we have to nurture his emotional needs. The dog’s, not David’s.

“I am enjoying being up here on my own it because I’m doing a lot of walking, I haven’t had many late nights and haven’t drunk lots. I’ve been eating really well at Henderson’s every day: a fantastic vegetarian restaurant. I used to go there years ago when I was at St Andrew’s University and visited friends in Edinburgh.

“But how do I get coverage in the press?” she asked me.

“Claim Scottish heritage,” I told her. “Or find any Scottish link of any kind. St Andrew’s is a good start – or do a bizarre publicity stunt that may get you nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award,” I advised her, solely so I could then mention it in this blog and give it a plug.

“Cunning Stunts are what brought me into showbiz,” Charmian said in reply. She did. She really did. Truly.

“I worked in an advertising agency,” she said, “as a copywriter and I was very depressed because I had thought I was in a creative job and it turned out I wasn’t. All the other people said: Ooh! You’re so wacky! because I wore tartan trousers.

“I used to put all my creative energy into writing things that ended up as: Oh, come and be a nurse in Saudi Arabia. You don’t have to pay tax. Whereas I had tried to write: Come and heal the sick! because I had thought it would be more interesting… The uniform is all-encompassing.

“I was about 26 and thought, at that age, my life was over. It was so depressing. What have I become? I have done nothing! I am not a Nobel Prize winning writer.

“I was driving my car and, on the radio, they were talking about an international theatre festival and there was a group called Cunning Stunts doing women’s theatre workshops. So I went along and I spent the first evening having to pretend I was a rock, which I had never done before; I was a good rock; it was lovely.

“So I did their course, then I did clowning at City Lit where Pierre Hollins was teaching and I suddenly found I was rather good at drawing attention to myself. Pierre was a clown then and did street shows. He had a teaching exercise where you just had to make everybody look at you rather than the other person on the stage. People tried all sorts of clever tricks but actually being as still as possible but being stupid drew their attention.

“Lots of them went off to join Gerry Cottle’s Circus but I gave up my job and did a bit of children’s theatre.

“Then I met this old man, aged about 70, called Eugene Boller who was a Hungarian acrobat and he taught acrobatics to lots and lots of students in the front room of his huge house in Brixton which had loads and loads of junk because he was a hoarder and it stank of cabbage all the time. He had electricity in his home, but no heating. People said, Oh you have to be really good to go to him! and I could just about do a cartwheel.

“I met him at a tea party where I was sitting alone feeling sorry for myself and he invited me along because he said he could teach anyone and I stayed for about 20 years and I never managed to do anything.

“It was a very small room and these very athletic students used to queue round the room to go in this harness where he flipped you over.

“I had a lot of resentment from the other people because they didn’t know why he was letting me be there. He would dismiss some really good people, saying, I don’t want you in my class any more; I don’t like your attitude but with me he’d go Hahahahaha…. The other students would ask me:

“So you’re doing a stage show are you? What do you do in it?

“Talk.

“Hah!

“I used to be quite good at roly-polys. Everyone else was doing back-flips; I was doing remedial moves. Eugene said he had me there because I made him laugh. He told me that a fat girl doing ballet will get everyone watching.

“He said watching me do a cartwheel was more entertaining than watching the athletic ones go backflip-backfliip-backflip.

“I started going to him in my 30s, then I had the children, then he invited me back when I was about 42, then he got very very old in about 1992 and he said, Oh, I’ve had this… I dunno… stuff… I think it’s called cancer… but, ah, stuff and nonsense, stuff and nonsense… and, once he had it, he had to go to the toilet for a long time and people told him You should go to the doctor and he said Oh no, I just take my olive oil.

“He had a massive bowel tumour and he was about 90 years old by then. With lots of people of that age, they don’t bother to operate. But they did operate on him and he was teaching again six weeks later.

“Later on, when he was dying, we all used to go up to his bedroom, where he now had a small gas fire, and just sit around talking to him. One of his great pupils, Annie Griffin, came along and he asked her: What have you been doing?

Oh, she said, well, I’ve written a TV series called The Book Club. and I wrote and directed a film called Festival about the Edinburgh Fringe…

Enough of that stuff, he said. Show me your handstand! Show me your handstand!

“When he died, he got an obituary in the Guardian.

“He had a tortoise called Jimmy, who he had found in a rubbish skip and who I was meant to look after when Eugene died but his weird niece took Jimmy away and sold him. We had a fight about that.”

And that is why, if you go to see The Ten Charmandments at the current Edinburgh Fringe – as you certainly should – Charmian Hughes does an erotic dance.

It is very funny.

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