“Barbu” means bearded in French and Cirque Alfonse don’t disappoint. Every male acrobat sports serious facial hair but that’s the only serious thing about them. The five-man, two-woman troupe makes their entrance on roller boots looking like Hackney hipsters who have been foraging in a Victorian fairground.
According to the programme, Jean-Philippe ‘The Chicken Eater’ Cuerrier was sold to the circus at the age of eight for three sheep, a zebra and a unicorn, while Genevieve “Gen the Grip” Morin’s was recruited by a freestyle-wrestling agent.
The acrobatics are slick and spectacular, especially given that the audience surrounds them on three sides (wondering whether the acrobat is about to land in your lap definitely adds an extra frisson). No sooner is the audience underwhelmed by the gentle skating that opens the show, than Gen the Grip spins into a blur around her partner’s neck, attached only by a noose.
Cirque Alfonse is a circus company from Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez in Quebec, Canada. They bill this as an “electro trad cabaret” that “delves into the origins of the circus in Montreal at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century”. If that all sounds rather earnest, it’s not: it’s joyously camp.
You’ll find this fairground at London Wonderground, an offshoot of Udderbelly, the comedy festival that takes place in an upside-down purple cow tent on the Southbank every summer. The shows range from cabaret to circus and all take place in a 1920s spiegeltent – a wonderfully atmospheric circular tent with mirrors and wooden booths.
A four-piece band provides the cracking soundtrack, which swings between jaunty folk tunes and throbbing electro. Over the 75-minute show, out come hoops, a seesaw, a pole and – yes, you guessed it – even the beards are utilised. There’s the odd dramatic wobble, which may or may not have been part of the act. As well as juggling interludes, there’s a cross-dressing “mentalist”, cream pies and a magic trick that left me gasping like a seven-year-old
Having said that, this is one for adults only. Let’s just say that the beards are just about the only things that stay on. I accidentally wolf-whistled. Twice. And I’ll never be able to sing the French-Canadian nursery rhyme Alouette again without blushing.
Barbu is at London Wonderground until the end of August