Contorted, standing on a trapeze and wrapped entirely in cling film, a scantily-clad male figure tears his way out of his plastic chrysalis with a rush of red fluid. This womb-like, visceral allusion to ‘coming out of the closet’, to forging a clear personal identity and revealing it to the world, establishes a prevailing theme of Puffball. The ensemble are a large group of young LGBTQ performers and this piece, directed by Mark Storor, explores questions of identity and the experience of love, many of the scenes drawn from personal experiences of members of the company. Puffball is a brave and strangely beautiful part of CircusFest 2014 at London’s Roundhouse.

Puffball © Stephen King
Puffball
© Stephen King

A couple lie on a double bed, talking and giggling together, engrossed in their feelings for one another. Their bed is a four-poster, reimagined and hanging from the ceiling on four chains, and he’s just pulled her the six feet from floor to bed, hand-over-hand, using a bedsheet. He leans over the edge, swings and is suddenly hanging upside down, readied to support her as she joins him. A touching, tender aerial duet ensues. She leaps, falls and swings down below him, pushing away from him to extend out to their full distance apart and skimming the ground, just inches away from the mattresses below, before returning to cling to him. He supports and facilitates her free-flying ambitions, but catches and cradles her when she returns. Their love and laughter make them adventurous yet keep them safe in each other’s arms.

Later a pair of male lovers share a sexually charged duet while hanging from a loop of chain, metres above the stage. The pair are full of masculine strength and power, but tender in the way they hold and catch one another. The feeling of equality between the two – both physically and emotionally – makes this sequence seem more genuine and engaging than any male-female duet. 

Puffball © Stephen King
Puffball
© Stephen King

Puffball is made up of a series of short scenes as groups, couples and lone performers maneuver their large personalities within the scope of the company as a whole. There are several extremely curious group scenes, including group bathtime in which a vast tower of baths is suspended from the Roundhouse roof. The group frolick and play, flicking towels and water at one another, bathing, drying and sticking waterlogged pages of favourite novels to themselves and one another, and generally mess around. There are solo moments too – one woman swings on a loop of thick rope high in the rafters, building momentum and swinging upside down by her ankles. Her happiness infects the entire space, the audience gazing up at her, smiling broadly in wonderment.

The set design that encompasses all of this is marvelously extravagant. The near-horizontal ladder that curls around the side of the stage, and the trampoline that, before it is unfolded, imprisons a meek male figure in a mesh were particular favourites. The live music, played by company members, was haunting and often beautiful – particularly when the musicians descended en masse to join the chaos on stage.

Puffball © Stephen King
Puffball
© Stephen King

Though full of beautiful moments, there were some scenes and characters which didn’t seem to make sense within the piece, and some long, awkward scene changes. It’s not a narrative piece, but the jolting scene changes still hindered the flow at times. Nonetheless, the audience were happy to forgive the lulls, and some uncomfortable moments became celebratory after the initial doubtful pause.

There is a striking honesty to this work – an openness about sexuality, promiscuity, attraction and emotional baggage – that is quite rare. The company’s frank acknowledgement of identity struggles – coming from a particularly genuine place within a diverse group of people – is wonderful to behold. Perhaps there’s an affinity for the circus among the LGBTQ community - running away to join the circus in the search for identity and for somewhere to belong. Either way, this hodgepodge of performers make a wonderful circus family, full of distinct characters and strong identities. Puffball offers up some striking moments and an unrivalled insight into the LGBTQ community.

***11