The Black Blues Brothers, a group of acrobats from the Nairobi-based circus trust Sarakasi, finished their UK tour at The Lowry last weekend.
I was interested to see how a small group of performers with one focus would engage me – as someone who is more used to variety-style performances, where a number of acts take turns to show off different skills. The audience was made up of parents with children on the one hand, and presumably, those hoping for the nostalgia of the original film on the other.
For a show that bills itself as being based on the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, a surprising amount of the music was not from the film, nor even blues at times. Doris Day’s rendition of ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ came back multiple times in the short sketch-like segments that broke up the leaping and balancing.
Even ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Waka Waka’ (This Time for Africa)’ made an appearance in an uncomfortable segment near the end of the first act. In it, an audience member was brought onstage to be ‘wooed’ by the performers while she sat in the corner looking increasingly uncomfortable. As various leaps and tricks occurred on a rickety table in the centre of the stage, I was sadly distracted by the relatable discomfort of the woman whose presence could easily have been left out.
Other people gasped around me, but this really did ruin this part of the show for me. As one audience member near me declared of the woman on stage: “She’s not sure what to do.” In the background, Aretha Franklin begged the performers to ‘Think’.
When it came to the acrobatics itself, the technical skill and trust between The Black Blues Brothers can only be marvelled. They seemed to balance on every part of the human body it is possible to balance on. The acrobats jumped over and through every prop they had on stage. During these sections, the performers showcased their strengths. Both in a physical sense and in the way they encouraged each other, helping the audience see how skilful each trick was.
This was especially impressive during the first couple of routines. For, the Brothers‘ performed in full suits, sunglasses, and hats, true to the eponymous film. To avoid doing the whole show in suits, they performed a strip routine to the song ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’, a show that was loudly popular with the middle-aged women in the audience.
Unfortunately, this scene ended with a forced stripping of one of the performers, which did make me wonder about the message the many children in the audience might take from this.
The second act was definitely the stronger part of the show, with children being brought onstage to try their hand at limbo. One lucky adult audience member was also brought on. His lack of acrobatic skill helped to further highlight how flexible and skilled the acrobats are (although he did manage an impressive number of push-ups)!
This segment showed how audience participation can be used to enhance performance, rather than making members of the audience uncomfortable. It was also good to see children being engaged in circus skills and show them the joy of performance. This engagement really helped focus the second part of the performance, which was further honed by some rather impressive fire tricks, as well as balances involving all five men.
Despite the fact that some of The Black Blues Brothers were clearly trained as ‘bases’ while the others balanced on them, all five performers proved their ability to jump through literal hoops and do flips through the air. The diverse range of abilities really drove home the level of skill and training held by all of these men.
Although the narrative continued between sections, the tricks were well built-up towards a final climax. Overall, I found the skill exhibited very impressive and the soundtrack fun and engaging. What was lacking was a strong, clear narrative to take this performance from a showcase to a performance.