Underbelly Productions’ Limbo: It’s Circus, but Not as You Know It

This summer sees the return of Underbelly Productions at the seasonal Wonderground turf, heaping extravagant entertainment onto the Southbank’s Centre’s doorstep. Making its home in the sumptuous Spiegeltent that loiters in the shadows of the purple and distinctly bovine Udderbelly venue: Limbo is the brainchild of Scott Maidment and serves up an orgiastic assault on the senses. A beguiling melange of feathers, fire, beat-boxing, swords, slapstick, magic, contortion, cabaret, acrobatics, rap, mouth organs and general raucous bawdiness, circus has never been so seductive.

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Unlike Limbo’s rampant predecessor – Cantina – there is no full-frontal male nudity within the first five minutes, but there is a giant stuffed bunny head atop a lingerie-clad femme fatale, which goes some way to making amends. One highlight of note comes in the form of a smutty little rap ditty, delivered with panache as the chap is flanked by the show’s two gyrating multi-talented female performers. The subject matter (“nasty vanilla pudding, banana pudding, chocolate pudding”) makes Kelis and her euphemistic milkshake sound like a nursery rhyme.

Of course there’s all the standard circus fare such as trapeze artistry, mind-boggling contortion that will flavour your dreams, stunning shimmying up and down a Chinese Pole, a brazen balancing act. During the climax of the show – a veritable blinding zenith – the audience finds itself wallowing in a pool of sweat. Is this due to the gallons of incendiary fluid boiling the muggy atmosphere, or the raunchiness of Heather Holliday’s smooth tattooed pins topped with ruched red satin? Is it awesome or just plain weird, what the contortionist does to himself on that glitterball-mounted prong? The audience doesn’t know whether to whoop or wince. Bewilderment reigns, and that’s the way it should be.

Limbo is crude, crass, brash and beautiful for 75 glorious minutes. This might all sound a bit much, but the blessed truth is that these moments of unbridled indulgence are punctuated by moments of startling beauty and restraint. The mesmerising sound of a glass bowl containing a marble being tapped with a drumstick (words don’t do it justice) as a network of low-wattage vintage lightbulbs dangles, frail, in mid-air will catch in your throat. The music seals the deal of Limbo’s triumph: termed JANX by the show’s musical director, Sxip Shirey, it veers insanely between a harmonica played through bullhorn / a sousaphone-driven nod to dubstep / eerie other-worldly kalimba / toe-twitching 1940s swing / unashamedly impudent hiphop.

The crucial essence of Limbo is that every performer has their knockout “thing” but gets gung-ho involved in every other aspect of the production that’s hurled their way. This leads to a lack of finesse in some of the moments of music and dancing that only serves to make the acts and their owners more likeable; there’s no anodyne Cirque du Soleil sense that these people are infallible superhumans (boring). You feel every wobble, twitch at the dropped hat, sense every brief tension and relieved smile, and live every moment with them. And by gum, do they welcome you into the experience.

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Limbo runs until the end of September. Tickets can be snapped up here.

London dweller, insomniac, wearer of many fringes and avid eater of scotch eggs, who takes great pleasure in writing dreadful poetry and makes no excuses for the abysmal rhymes.