The Happiness Machine is the first show of its kind the Bristol-based Invisible Circus has created. The Invisible Circus is more well-known for its performances within a party context such as their own Carny Ville or on stages at various festivals, including Boomtown Fair.
Thanks to Arts Council funding the Invisibles had the chance to devote time and money to exploring, researching and developing a more “focused and detailed work”. Like many traditional circuses they chose a big top as their venue. Conveniently, there’s one erected just outside Temple Meads station, the Creative Common.
But the Invisible Circus is not a traditional circus despite the big top setting. The Happiness Machine is a contemporary theatre-circus show that, like many modern circus shows, is not purely about the tricks, stunts and spectacle but has something bigger and more profound to explore. While The Happiness Machine didn’t have a narrative as such, the whole thing was held together around the town that was created on stage and by the narrator, who could almost be seen as the ring master. Played by Doug Francisco, the narrator took the form of a travelling salesman who, from his cart full of curios, antiquities and trinkets (including the very funny “aerial circus Barbie” – a muscular super hero action figure with a Barbie doll head), guided us through the town with his poetic, philosophical, funny but dark and sometimes angry musings.
The opening scene involved most, if not all of the large cast, bustling about and giving us an introduction to the town and some of its strange but eerily familiar inhabitants. Amidst this hustle and bustle a small army of posties deliver packages to the town’s inhabitants, sometimes climbing on each other to reach the people in the town’s higher windows.
As scene develops we’re drawn into an office scenario where before long one of the workers, inundated with paperwork, climbs onto a slack rope between the town’s buildings. Skill-wise this was my personal favourite act, the balance and control of this act was fantastic and his precarious position reflected the stresses of office-life very well.
The first aerial piece in the show was introduced by the billboard advertising “golden gloves” (a pair of marigolds) at the back of the stage moving forward. Out of a TV emerged the golden gloves girl, played by Helina Griffiths, looking beautiful and glamorous and wearing a pair of golden gloves. She’s soon hoisted into the air in an aerial ring and performs a graceful act full of feats of flexibility.
Other acts included a Chinese pole duo having fun playing on, around and up and down a pair of lamp posts contrasting with an unhappy couple spending money on an expensive meal; and a game show sequence with four aerial acrobats, a fake tan smeared host and a couch potato contestant. I found the game show sequence little long running and less interesting than the other acts, but this may have been intentional to express the banality of the TV game shows it parodies.
The final two acts featured a teeter board section with some impressive acrobatics, and, the show’s climax, a cloud swing routine staring Imogen McRae. This spectacular finale was the highlight of the show for me with the aerial skills the most dramatic, dangerous and technically demanding in the production. The character on the swing had appeared at several points during the show, often teasing the narrator, and seemed the only happy and care-free character in the show. After rising from her mundane family breakfast she ascends onto the cloud swing and performs twists, turns and flips while swinging from the rafters sometimes only secured with a foot lock. The exuberant performance was a great way to end the show with the performer escaping the trivial, material and TV- or work-obsessed town below her.
Director of the Happiness Machine, Sarah Fielding, said: “We wanted to create a beautiful and thought provoking show that didn’t have an agenda. That reflected the absurdities of the world we live in without ever setting ourselves outside of it. We don’t pretend to have all the answers. But we wanted to ask some questions.”
The Invisible Circus may not have had the all the physical skills of the Moscow State Circus, who were pitched just a few miles away, but they certainly presented the more artistic, interesting and socially valuable performance. In my opinion, The Happiness Machine represents the future of circus while travelling big tops like the Moscow State, even with all their prowess, are now outmoded by these new and fresh forms of circus art.