Barbu

Theatre, Circuses
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Barbu
Photograph: Prudence Upton

The tattooed Canadian circus troupe mix wit, tricks and brute strength all to a thumping soundtrack

Sydney’s first look at the work of the small, tight-knit Quebec troupe Cirque Alfonse was via its lumber camp-themed Timber! Brawny, inventive and drawing on the folk music and history of French Canada, it stood out in the 2015 Sydney Festival’s circus program.

Barbu (“Bearded”), the company’s 2015 Edinburgh Fringe hit now touring Australia, is no less a crowd-pleaser, if more obvious in its methods. Performing on a small circular stage and catwalk, the five-guy, two-gal company introduces itself with a series of gentle routines harking back to the early days of circus in Canada. Rollerskates, scarf juggling, a bit of beard-play for laughs. Nothing spectacular.

But as Cirque Alfonse warms to the task, the physicality of each act becomes increasingly intense. The three-piece electro-folk band led by singer-guitarist Andre Gagne kicks up a gear. Costumes (vintage circus-meets-Edwardian bondage) are discarded for tight black undies. Sweat begins to bead on the performers’ brows and bodies. Soon it’s running in rivulets. For the next hour the company is pretty much flat-out.

Previous circus-burlesques seen in the Studio (La Clique, La Soiree, and more recently Club Swizzle) have been compilations shows, speciality acts knitted together with emcee patter. You do your “bath boy” routine, or whatever, and it’s back to the green room until curtain call.

Barbu, by contrast, is Jack (and Jill) of all trades stuff with everybody working most of the time. The four men (Jean-Philippe Cuerrier, Francis Roberge, Jonathan Casaubon and Antoine Carabinier Lepine) get few breathers in this interval-free 90-minute show. Barbu’s women – aerialist Genevieve Gauthier and acrobat Genevieve Morin – have less of a presence, though when they do get stage time both are excellent. They also have less opportunity to play the personality card.

Not so the cheesecloth-clad company elder Lucas Jolly, whose questionably funny non-events (two featuring a live hamster) are as good a time to sneak to the bar as any.

An audience participation skit that sets Jolly swinging over the stage in a red bag while a lucky punter tries to shy shaving foam pies in his face can only be funny with a few drinks under your belt.

Strength and balance acts are company trademarks. All excel in grippy, sweaty, hand-to-hand routines. Three-man towers that have the top man with his head almost in the lighting rig are impressive.

Carabinier Lepine’s Cyr wheel solo, a human glitter ball working to a pumping beat, lifts the show to its climax. A weight-swinging routine with a full beer keg, which ends with a high-pressure fountain of the good stuff, keeps it there.

Barbu lacks jaw-drop moments but Cirque Alfonse’s all-hands-on-deck approach to circus-making, its palpable sense of company and spirited work ethic makes for an entertaining night of hairy-chested dynamism whose frank physical appeal does not go unsaluted. Jolly wasn’t the only thing swinging out there on this night.

By: Jason Blake

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