Slava's Snowshow

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

I HAVE to admit I am a sucker for clowns. My favourite was Charlie Cairoli at Blackpool Tower Circus who could make you happy or sad by a mere gesture.

The World's Fair, the showman and circus newspaper, was also published in my home town so clowns in person and in print were a part of my growing up.

Clowning these days is an art form which sadly seems to be in steep decline in this country. Perhaps it is not seen as sophisticated enough for modern tastes used to flash specials effects and slick video games and it is certainly out of favour with go-getting, thrusting TV executives in search of the next formulaic reality/talent/celebrity rehash.

So praise be to Slava Polunin, a Russian master of the art who not only keeps the wonderfully whacky world of the clown alive but is helping it to grow and thrive in Europe at least.

His multi-award winning Snowshow is billed as a childhood fantasy and it is certainly that, filled with whimsy, the absurd, fun, poignancy, sadness and even a touch of terror.

Slava, in his bright yellow baby grow and red slippers starts by trying to hang himself – clowns from Chaplin and beyond always live life on the edge of tragedy and misfortune which they always somehow manage to overcome.

The hanging is going well until he finds that the rope he is using stretches to somewhere just past Coventry and finally when he eventually drags in the other end he finds  there is another clown at the end who is also trying to hang himself.

They decide after much looking and pausing  that this is not going to work so give up and the show goes on with Slava along with six other clowns who are all in identical garb of long green coats, big red noses, three foot long shoes and Russian hats with sticking out ear flaps the size of a 707's wings.

This is a show of fantasy and illusion – and the absurd, thus we have a clown knitting in a rocking chair for no apparent reason, a girl who appears on a swing for a few moments with no hint of why and then vanishes never to be seen again  and even a ball which floats into the heavens to explode into thousands of sparkling stars all for no reason with everything  set  around a series of episodes which are a masterclass in the art of the clown.

It is not just about falling over or funny walks, it is about being able to tell a whole story in mime with no more than a few shrugs and gestures. It is about the eloquence of silence, or the skill in a just a lingering look which creates laughter out of literally nothing.

Slavo produces some moments of genius with perhaps my favourite being his farewell at a railway station when he opens a giant suitcase to release a few escaping, tiny balloons then hangs a coat and hat on a stand and within moments we can believe they are lovers saying a fond farewell. It is just an old bloke in a funny costume with his arm stuck in the sleeve of a coat on a hanger and yet – in the world of Slava it becomes a moving, sad and poignant little love story – the coat is even taken in, waving goodbye on its own..

Three feet of snow plod through the arctic wastes of Hurst Street in the fantasy land that is Slava's wonderful world of the clown

His telephone call between lovers with huge telephones is closely observed humour and although the conversation is gibberish we know what is going on and delight when the pair – both Slava of course - make up after first falling out

There is fall about clowning as well of course, such as when he dies after being shot by arrows in a death scene that lasts so long it is a toss up whether old age will get him first, all to Rodrigo's  Concierto De Aranjuez. There is a lovely touch as he finally dies where he rises painfully on one arm with his final breath to brush away some invisible dust where he is about to lie for eternity.

We have a bedstead boat, shark attacks by a shark that even takes a bow and a giant spider which leaves Slava entangled in its web. Slava is a sharing sort of person though and soon everyone is entangled as yards and yards of web – football pitches at a time - are passed out over the audience. Stop passing it over your head and you could be tied up for life.

The second half starts with the green coated clowns walking around on seat backs with umbrellas which create their own downpours – so everyone gets a fair chance of being trampled by six foot of black boot or drenched or indeed both. There is an interlude of controlling cheers and applause with just hand gestures as the clowns vie for popularity. All daft, simple, silly and great fun. The skill of sesoned clowns.

There are also a few binfuls of snow - pieces of paper -  thrown over the front few rows but that is nothing to the finale when all the backdrops are turned to reveal a bleak artic scene and suddenly, Close Encounters style Slave is silhouetted against a bank of blinding light in a raging blizzard as tons of paper snow are blasted all over the audience in a wind powerful enough to reach the back rows – all to Carl Orff's dramatic O Fortuna at full blast. Powerful stuff and then . . . out come the balloons.

Huge affairs the size of small cathedrals bounce around the audience making trips to the circle and even the roof, along with dozens of smaller but still huge balloons in the normal world with the audience indulging in snow fights and bouncing balloons around to their hearts content with the clowns now becoming the audience contentedly watching the mayhem and delight in the wonderland they had created and which went on for ages long after the show on stage had ended. You could see the wonder and delight in the faces of children but, let's face it, in the world of Slava we are all just big kids once again.

To 13-11-11.

Roger Clarke 

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