12th-15th October, 11pm
There is something very sinister and mysterious about the gaudy facade of circus amusements; Nikki Moss’ script, brought to creepy life by a cast who admirably embraced the ridiculousness of physical comic performance, pretty much hit the nail on the head. Whilst exploring brilliant exaggerated comedy, the play also delves into philosophy with carefully regulated moments of poignancy, leaving a small (but very appreciative) audience both laughing and thinking.
What story there is in Dandelion Heart is driven by the arrival of Stephanie (Stephanie Aspin), an ethereal and curious girl, in the purgatory of Baltimore Bontecou’s circus, inhabited by Boy (Michael Cotton), a sheepish but excitable dogsbody, August (Immy Gardam), a no-nonsense special effects technician, and grinning Benjamin-Benjamin (Tom England), replacement circus manager with a touch of the tyrannical. These drifting caricatures playing about in their abandoned, ramshackle circus, we see their desires exposed – Stephanie to leave, Boy to be the new Benjamin-Benjamin, the circus master himself to improve the show and August to fix those broken lights.
What appears to be the gradual demise of the characters’ livelihoods is, ironically, an expertly crafted piece of theatre. Credit must go to the choreography and direction which allowed the quirky dialogue to flow seamlessly into fluid dance sections that reminded one of the movements of swinging puppets. This was accompanied by disconcerting, hypnotic music and a light design, by Nick Gebbet and Joe Hobbs, which aided this unsettling but mesmerising experience.
Of course, none of this would have come together without the impressive performances which we received. England’s monologues mined the script for comedy gold in each vocal inflection and gesticulation, and the timing of both Cotton’s frantic energy and Gardam’s detached August (“the boy doesn’t fly”) was impeccable, whilst Aspin injected necessary gravitas at key moments. Special mention should go to the mysterious James Bloor whose Chaplin-esque clown was perfectly imagined, down to the last clumsy turn and facial expression. The entire cast should be applauded on their physical performances (‘Genial left! Genial right!’) which were executed, as Benjamin-Benjamin would say, with panache.
What made this play so startling was the existentialism the comedy was set in. While we were undoubtedly entertained by the humour, bleak undertones ran underneath the dialogue, showing us the pointlessness of these characters’ lives, ‘drifting’ with no-one to perform to. And when Stephanie’s face falls in the final frieze, in between the contrived grins of the other two remaining characters, the tacky, showy circus facade is pulled back revealing the loneliness of their existence. Not without its faults (a climax please?) this was a superficially hilarious play, but with a dark, dandelion heart.