Review: The remarkable, freakish, extraordinary Limbo

The versatile and edgy cast of Limbo.
The versatile and edgy cast of Limbo.
Company: Strut & Fret
Director: Scott Maidment
Rating: ★★★★½


It’s hard to go past the very daring, devilish and dangerous circus cabaret show of Limbo. It’s an out-of-this-world extravaganza showcasing the best of theatre, circus, acrobatics and cabaret all mashed up into one almighty spectacle. There’s even a bit of magic too.

Showing as part of Melbourne Fringe, Limbo is directed by Scott Maidment, who also helmed shows like Tom Tom Crew and The Secret Death of Salvador Dali.

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Independent company Strut and Fret (who also delivered the critically acclaimed Cantina) are the folks behind the magic of Limbo. Cantina was a hit with its darker, more intimate take on circus performance, but when compared to Limbo, Cantina was just the entrée.

Limbo, which has won multiple awards including Best Circus & Physical Theatre and Pick of the Fringe in Adelaide, is showcased in the early 1900s-inspired Spiegeltent – the perfect setting for the unique and tantalising show.

Music is a highlight of the performance, and draws on an extraordinary and eccentric range of instruments.
Music is a highlight of the performance, drawing on an extraordinary and eccentric range of instruments.

The stage itself is small and central, so audiences can view the performers from wherever they sit. Dozens of mirrors and stained glass windows make you feel like you’ve been transported to another world or era. The setting is fitting for a show where anything can happen.

It starts with the usual fading of the lights and quieting of the crowd, but there is nothing else normal about the show. The music booms through the Spiegeltent in an intense opener showcasing the brilliant work of New York composer Sxip Shirey.

Performers flood in from around and within the audience, merging on the stage for an upbeat, loud and sassy tune including an awesome beatboxing set by musician Mick Stuart.

The music is exhilarating, and Elyas Khan leads the band performing Shirey’s work with utmost precision. The tempo, rhythm and unique vibe match the acts of each performer – all perfectly in sync during Limbo. Lead composer and ringmaster of the night Elyas Khan says the music reflects the performers.

“Yes, it very much reflects them. The compositions at their core [are] musical portraits of the performers, then choreographic scores which hold true to the central themes of Limbo, and finally, fully realized theatrical compositions, which fuse everything together,” Khan says.

The music – a sexy and mischievous electro-acoustic affair – is a large part of Limbo’s success. Shirey describes the music as “a New York brass band marching through New Orleans on its way to an all-night party in Berlin”.

“It’s brass, electronics surprising sounds, hip-hop and club beats.”

The instruments make the live compositions  unique. Khan says all kinds are used to create a distinctive atmosphere.

“We use the polymba, a very unique and wonderful instrument designed and played by Mick Stuart who also plays drums, bass and guitar.  There are harmonicas, penny whistles, sousaphones, trumpets, desk bells, hand chimes, vocal foley effects, beat boxing, electronic effects, marbles and glass bowls, circus whistles, plastic bottles and more,” he says.

The use of these types of instruments becomes obvious once the show continues. It’s not about the commonplace or conventional, but what is rare and exceptional about each performer. Khan says this is why the instruments are so eccentric.

“This is anything but a conventional show. We’re dealing with the extraordinary here. To illustrate that, all of the senses need to be surprised and awakened within a unique and tantalising realm,” he says.

“Sxip [Shirey] sees this as an everyday pursuit. Given the palette of players involved, his imagination kicked into full gear with a type of magical realism – the sounds created, the instruments utilised only have one [purpose] and that is to serve the whole, to forge a lens through which fresh insights are had and heightened sensations are felt.”

Heather Holliday is the fire-breathing star of Limbo.
Heather Holliday brings fire-breathing heat to Limbo.

Those “heightened sensations” come as the artists perform their individual acts – seemingly impossible feats. From the tap dancing sensation Hilton Dennis to mind-boggling contortionist Phillip Tigris, the crowd is left with jaws dropped, wanting more.

Each performance feels like the climax, but each in turn is eclipsed by something else. The two acts by Heather Holliday and Danic Abishev are prime examples of this.

Holliday brings the fire back to circus – literally. You can feel the heat as the special effects light up the stage and she breathes and swallows fire.

Khan says Holliday has been in love with freakish stunts all her life.

“She was the youngest sword swallower in the world, beginning as a city-dwelling, early teen punk rocker escaping off to Coney Island, Brooklyn, to check out the freaks and get stuck in.”

Holliday previously mentioned it was her desire to be in a circus-like show, but it wasn’t her first choice of career. Initially she interned at a childcare centre, but soon discovered being in the “safe zone” wasn’t for her.

After a lot of practice, which usually involved gagging and dry heaving, Holliday swallowed her first sword when she was just a teen. And since then, she’s been travelling the world wowing audiences with her alluring charm and precarious talents.

Abishev is the master of hand balance as he jumps between elevated poles with one hand and performs tricks with the other. His performance with the remaining group on swinging poles, whizzing over and around the audience, is memorable. There’s a cheekiness to his performance – he even sways down and grabs an audience member’s glasses, before swinging back in to put them back on the stunned guy’s head.

Limbo is one extraordinary event. The themes of mystery, exuberance, love, titillation, loss, incarceration, rebirth, heaven and hell are all pushed to the limit, both symbolically and physically by the performers. It’s all in an effort to entertain and send a message, a message that Khan hopes makes a creative difference.

“You ARE society. Joan of Arc was odd, Ghandi was odd, Billie Holliday was odd, Galileo was odd, and Walt Disney was odd,” he says.

“If you are questioning your place that is good; you are thinking, that will lead to creative thinking, which will lead to creative doing, which if you keep at it, will serve you the rest of your life.

“Vive la difference!”

Limbo is showing until November 1