A lot of the time when circus is used as a metaphor in plays, it’s not—not really—a metaphor. It’s more just a backdrop and a texture: of mystery, timelessness, menace. Cirxus I think was fairly sophisticated in recognising these qualities, and others, and facing their abstruseness off against the cold, distant reality of a forgotten nuclear disaster; The Grind Show unfortunately is less successful, and less ambitious, never quite finding a way out of its own abstraction.
We follow a newborn—a singsong, birdlike creature who is sent by a sort-of God to the circus to experience… something; just to experience. There he/she (the play’s genders are confusing) is taken in by a bullying paraplegic ringmaster and introduced to the acts: Siamese boxing twins who are linked not physically but by mutual dependency, a mimetically doubled knifethrower who is both artist and victim, a trapeze artist who wants only to be caught, and a lion tamer with a lost son. He/she is insulted, beaten up, savaged and undressed by invisible lions of the mind, raped, and finally turned into a vent doll.
The style is Dell Arteish physical theatre—the trapeze artist performs her routine lying on the ground, the knifethrower mimes the toss and the cast clap the impact, the clowns fall and punch with weight—and it works fine while being all fairly familiar. Most of the performances are solid, and I liked the portrayal of the ringmaster, who pretends to protect and nurture the newcomer while moulding him/her for selfish ends, but the characters are weighed down by their status as symbols. It’s overwrought. The Grind Show’s scenes are divided by short sections where a schoolteacherly figure comes on with a book and reads an encyclopaedic extract—the definition of tabula rasa or a super-gloss of Schrödinger’s Cat—and I suppose these were intended as the ties that would join the play’s distributed elements. But while it might come together in the writer’s mind, on stage nothing connects; it slides right off.