What, you wonder, was the working subtitle for Cirque du Soleil's latest show, an evolutionary spectacular that goes from the amphibious to the airborne in a whirl of dazzling lighting effects and Latex. Was it 'Darwin With Balls On'? Or perhaps 'The Banality of Evolution'. Either would suffice to sum up this disappointing extravaganza.
Many hopes rested on this collaboration between French-Canadian director Robert Lepage and his flexi-limbed compatriots at the Cirque, onetime street performers who have zoomed into corporate class with their multi-million dollar spectaculars. Lepage – who has created some of the most influential stage images of the last century – could have sharpened their conceptual edge, while they could have added flare to his already dazzling visual vocabulary.
True, the performers are capable of manoeuvres that suggest they have physically evolved some way beyond most audience members. Five unicyclists elegantly kicking bowls on to their own and each others' headsare worthy of the occasional dropped jaw. But for all the vibrant lighting effects and painstakingly created costumes (the evolutionary development of humans is evoked in a series of ape costumes which graduate to a man with a mobile in a business suit), the theme dangles inelegantly from the ambitious physical framework.
Lepage has produced some clunky moments: a bearded old man who we assume to be Darwin has a somewhat random totter-on part in the first half, and 'scientists' playing music on test tubes seem kitsch rather than amusing – as indeed do all the show's clowns. The situation isn't helped by the pan-global music that sounds as if it was composed by whales on synthesizers and dominates the evening. It's only briefly redeemed by the glimpses of what might have happened if Lepage had stamped himself more firmly on the Cirque's aesthetic.
In the second half, Darwin climbs into an upturned transparent funnel and starts to juggle balls, which light up and whirl around him as if they were heavenly bodies in motion. Placed in another show this could have been a sublime moment, but here its impact dissolves in the Cirque's pseudo-philosophical wash. I would love, truly love, to see a Lepage show about Darwin. But this isn't it.