It’s the worst fear of every critic: the press nights for two shows you’re eager to see fall on the same day. Do you go to see the award-winning, established musical, or do you take a chance on the brand-new, fringe musical? Buddy, which previously toured the UK for a record-breaking five years, will no doubt be back, so I decided on the latter – and I’m glad I did.
Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror is a sorta-musical from Extraordinary Bodies, a collective of D/deaf, disabled, and non-disabled artists. The musical tells the tale of a travelling circus troupe during the early days of Nazi Germany. Thus, it tells a little-told tale: whilst the Nazis’ persecution of Jews is well-documented, many people do not realise, or often forget, that the Nazis persecuted other groups too, including disabled folk.
This production, then, is multilayered. It’s a politically-charged, historical, circus musical, with a mostly disabled cast. That’s ambitious, but, for the most part, Extraordinary Bodies pulls it off.
The story focuses on the titular circus, led by army veteran Waldo (Garry Robson), who (claims to have) lost the use of his legs in the First World War. He positions himself as different to his disabled employees, who are often referred to as “freaks”. The circus is being ran into the ground, in part because the Nazis have made their (negative) feelings towards disabled people known, so less people are visiting circuses.
However, the Nazis did love circuses – but only when performed by non-disabled performers. So, when the Nazis – led by Waldo’s son, Peter (Tilly Lee-Kronick), who he often neglected and, arguably, pushed towards the Nazis – force Waldo to put on a performance at a Nazi rally, there is a moral dilemma. He detests the Nazis but he needs the money – and he knows that if he refuses, there will be retribution.
A subplot focuses on the Romeo & Juliet-esque lovestory between the disabled leading lady (Krista, played by Abbie Purvis) and the non-disabled, circus-obsessed newest addition to the troupe (Gerhard, played by Lawrence Swaddle), who is slowly becoming the star attraction.
Gerhard’s bigoted sister, Dr Margot Krüger (Mirabelle Gremaud), a doctor who is later revealed to be working for the Nazis, is so embarrassed and disgusted that she takes on the job of sterilising the female performers.
In the second act (spoiler), it is revealed that Gerhard, himself, is a Nazi party member, though he insists he is not an “active” member, which allows for a philosophical discussion about complicity (e.g. silence is violence). Whilst his views are not as extreme as his sister’s, he reveals himself to be a bit of a eugenicist. This shocking, devastating revelation is a mere reflection of real life. The Nazis came to power because ordinary people voted for them and remained silent when they began their brutal campaign of discrimination. Jews, and other marginalised communities, were horrified to discover that their friends, acquaintances and neighbours supported the people who wanted to destroy them.
One of the best parts of this piece is its investment in telling these little-told stories, in raising awareness about this near-forgotten history. It’s two hours of educational entertainment – or, perhaps, entertaining education.
The set is stunning, complete with a circus top. The costumes are dazzling (particularly Gerhard’s glistening, tasselled leotard, which the hunky Lawrence Swaddle wears the hell out of).
Where the musical struggles is its music. The instrumentals are beautiful, chilling, and atmospheric but the sang songs are few and far between, so much so that they feel a little out-of-place and random. You often forget it’s a musical and then suddenly somebody bursts into song. This would be okay if the songs blew it out of the park but none of them were memorable. What’s unfortunate is they all have potential, with pretty catchy choruses, but the lyrics are clunky, and the performances felt a little half-hearted.
The best part of the piece is unsurprisingly the circus acts. Jonny Leitch deserves a special mention. He is a member of both the cast and the band, playing aerialist Renee and the drums. The cast as a whole, but especially Leitch, prove that disabled people can be just as able as non-disabled folk. They put the able in disabled.
Leading lady Abbie Purvis (Krista), an actor of short stature, is a tour de force. She comes from a lineage of disabled actors; her grandfather was Jack Purvis (Time Bandits, Monty Python, Star Wars) and her mother is Katie Purvis (Maternal Ewok in Star Wars). If disabled actors were given better opportunities, Katie would be killing it on the West End stage.
Representation for people of colour has grown exponentially in recent years. Here’s hoping the same happens for disabled performers. The National Theatre recently cast an actor of short stature in the ensemble of Hex (better yet, his roles were not defined by his disability), but such a casting is sadly all too rare.
Waldo’s Circus is patchy at times, can drag on a little bit, and needs a rewrite of its songs – but it’s a beautiful piece of theatre that lets disabled performers shine.