Roll up, roll up for a look behind the curtain of the travelling show.
The fairground calliope music fades into the strains of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore” and in turn to the incessant chirping of cicadas, as thrust into this distinctly one-ring wonder are Frances Bailey and his performing chimpanzee Goody.
It’s the Depression era in the famine struck dustbowl of the Dirty Thirties. A time of migration, never more so than for Boon and Doggett Travelling Circus where the only way is forwards, to try and find a way.
Frances is struggling to keep it together as they rehearse the show’s slapstick elements, the somewhat reluctant Goody aping him through hand signal triggers that have been rehearsed and reinforced. Some inappropriate behaviour by the chimps has put them in the harsh and unfavourable spotlight of the management. They need the one perfect show or they are screwed.
The prospect of leaving the circus is a bleak one, after all they have been pulled away from home and there is no real way of returning. What they have here is family. Through his protective but sometimes abusive relationship with Goody we learn how Frances related to his own judgemental and demeaning father. Slowly a story is exposed of trying to fit in, of hurt, love and dependency. Bonds often run both ways and are more complicated than they first appear, as perhaps are more primitive needs – like being loved.
Pulling off a play that is in part about the lack of communication in complex relationships is no mean feat. Having Goody able to occasionally vocalise the inner thoughts of Francis and his father at first seems at odds but does allow the story to develop. The plot remains however slightly limited and, while not uninteresting, a bit of a one trick pony once the main tenets have been rehearsed and repeated.
Well performed and with a dark, haunting quality it offers a glimpse of the harsh world of the touring circus of the era and a little of what it means to be human.
Show Times: 2 – 28 (not 15) August 2017 at 2.15pm.
Tickets: £6.50 to £11 (£10).