REVIEW: Freak Show

I've liked just about everything that Zoe Seaton’s Portstewart-based Big Telly Theatre Company have done to date – they’ve shown no respect for typical theatrical conventions and taste in a frankly refreshing “don’t ask, just go with it” manner which embraces the most oddball aspects of our complex inner and outer personalities, all while respecting and exploring a series of national and international myths and legends.

And despite minimal aesthetic foundations, with what there is for a set amounting to a few curtained doorways and a wide open space in the middle of The MAC’s upstairs stage area, Freak Show is very much up there with the best of Big Telly’s oeuvre.

Joining forces with co-writer and director Seaton, co-writer and star Nicky Harley has crafted a series of colourful and entertaining escapades which revolve around one very interesting and enduring question: what fuels a circus, the performing hearts or the business heads? Is it a show of freaks, as the title implies, or the deranged product of attention-seeking, control freaks?

Like, say, Harley’s Norman, a local “ringmaster” with a thick local accent and a red waistcoat, and Keith Singleton’s Pascal, a French sea captain with an even thicker accent than Norman’s. (He would make John Cleese proud.) In a plot strand taken from real life, Pascal is attracted to, and marries, the Portrush Giantess Mary Murphy (Harley again). The rest of the production is quite literally in Norman’s hands as he opens the literal curtains and metaphorical doors to all sorts of remarkable attractions, such as balloon-headed, ruffle-wearing dancers, a recorder-playing bearded lady, a cowboy who feels “no pain” even if the audience hit him with a hammer, “the oldest couple in the world”, and, perhaps most amusingly, two dancing monkeys.

 Every act calls for especially flexible puppetry, mime and mimicry - and both Harley and Singleton are more than up to their task. The monkeys alone are an impressive feat of costuming and physicality that demands Singleton’s tall frame fit and wiggle inside a double sided monkey suit.

As with all Big Telly shows, there’s strong social commentary beneath the fun and frolics. Once again the company return to their use of wooden half-masks, this time for Pascal and Norman – an arguable hint at the characters’ attempt to conceal the half of their personalities which they’d rather we didn’t see. Norman calls himself not a liar, but “a spreader of untruths that make people’s lives more interesting”. But then, what does that make him, if not a liar? It’s foolish, cotton candy morality which insists upon the reckless energy he wrings from both himself and the performers he chooses to show for us.

It’s why, in a way, the quietest, calmest performers also make a strong impression – like a lady and her puppet, and the hardly courageous “Man Bear”. Their emptiness and helplessness is a mirror to the societal nature of the “freaks” – they may well be more famous and will make more money than they’ve imagined, but who will really benefit from the money and fame? 

Seaton, Harley and Singleton are going for more than the dangers of extravagance as shown in The Greatest Showman. They’re digging deeper, to not only entertain us uniquely, but also to show how far people will go in the name of what they perceive to be distinctly diverting – even if it may mean losing both their sanity and the people they depend on for love and money.

Thus Norman becomes something of a pitiable figure in his own Freak Show, a consummately professional and effortlessly graceful balancing act between vibrant fringe cabaret and dark individual tragedy. One thing’s for sure, you’ll turn on to, tune in to, and definitely won’t cop out from this display of freak power from Big Telly.

Simon Fallaha

Freak Show ran at The MAC until November 3 as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, and will return for an Irish tour in March 2019. Go to for more information and follow them online @bigtellyni on both Facebook and Twitter. Published in TBL 301.

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