[All images courtesy of Leeds Art Theatre]
Even though Lynda Radley’s play follows life behind the curtain at a Victorian Odditorium, the story as a whole presents us audience members or “Townies” with the dilemma of pursuing personal transformation at the cost of possibly losing who you are.
As the show opens to a jazzy circus-themed soundtrack at The Carriageworks Theatre, the freaks are laid out before us on stage: The World’s Fattest Man (aptly called Tiny), Siamese twins, a mermaid who can’t speak, a bearded lady with no arms, a hermaphrodite and their ringmaster, Robert Riley.
Despite being objects of fascination in the past, the show is headed for a dead end and the family of performers are desperate – they’ve just had to eat the horse. Realising his ship is very close to sinking, Riley is hit with the epiphany that perhaps his performers could do with becoming a little less odd, i.e. more like everybody else.
From this point onwards, the rest of the play operates on the question of “Will They Won’t They?”, as in will they succumb to Riley’s idea of sacrificing their apparent flaws to appease the masses, or will those flaws and in turn their individuality be retained?
Connections between what each of the characters experience and our world today are crystal clear, because we are a society obsessed with transformation. In the same way Tiny miraculously loses his fat-suit (hilariously carried out by Lee Brown), we see countless success stories of the once-obese man who reached the pinnacle of fitness and gained a six-pack. The same can be said for the former ugly duckling who turned into a swan, or in Countess Marketa’s more extreme case, the woman who shaved her beard and became an instant picture of femininity.
However, we also see that hierarchy exists even within this family. Tiny and Marketa have become stars, leaving Serena the mute mermaid, Millie and Lillie the Siamese twins and George/Georgina wondering about their current place as well as their future. Despite being joined physically, the twins in particular become worlds apart due to an argument over Riley suggesting a surgery which could separate them.
Riley’s constant want for perfection in an environment which is far from it then causes the foundations to crumble with the re-playing of the circus jazz track and the re-introduction of the performers, only without Lillie. George/Georgina, who we usually see sharing a somewhat tender bond with Riley, completely disgraces his quest for fame, success and money and how it’s not only cost them their dignity but also a life.
Perhaps the most profound moment in the play’s entirety is when the Odditorium disbands and George/Georgina, (played by Bethany Givvons Collinge) arguably the most selfless of the troupe decides that enough is really enough. The silent ruining of make-up and dishevelling of clothes presented an overall vulnerability of completely revealing oneself, along with a simultaneous strength of refusing to sacrifice who you are for the sake of appeasing complete strangers.
Find out more about the latest shows coming to the Carriageworks Theatre.