views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Udderbelly, Southbank
23rd April 2014


The ensemble of Smashed

Photography © Ludovic Des Cognets

Greg Wallace eats food on a plate. Me, I have food thrown at me. And plates. Real plates. Reviewing doesn't get tougher than this. When you book your ticket to go see Smashed - and you should - do bear in mind that the front row is the danger zone when it comes to flying fruit. The title of the show is not an abstract, it's a warning.

Having toured in over 40 countries, Gandini Juggling are an international troupe, and that perhaps explains why it seems they haven't had time to get bogged down by UK "elf and safety" laws too much. What they have done however is take the time to perfect the art of juggling, clowning and general storytelling. Despite the misleadingly tame introduction - the ensemble throwing apples in the air to the repetitive I've Always Wanted to Waltz in Berlin - this is a company with some very big, bold ideas. Once the party gets started, it's anarchic genius.

Juggling may have a dull reputation, but Gandini Juggling explore the darker side to their craft - and to an extent, the darker side of life itself - through a narrative of power play and a desire for others to fail. There's a delicious wryness in the choice of songs; as the only two female performers, Kati Yla-Hokkala and Doreen Grosmann, crawl on the floor while the men bounce apples off them, Tammy Wynette sings about "doing things that you don't understand". In this exploration of gender politics, the influence of German choreographer Pina Bausch is keenly felt throughout.

Although there are some rather sinister themes explored, the performance has a very comic, overblown nature to it, and there's far more implied than actually shown. There are also different levels on which you can engage with the piece - any children in the audience will simply laugh at director and performer Sean Gandini running around with a rolled up newspaper trying to distract the other eight jugglers. You can see that as pure slapstick. However, on another level, it's a nicely crafted dig at the pressures that performance artists put on each other, and how someone else's failure can often be used to increase the self-worth of another. There's plenty for adults to appreciate, but that doesn't mean you have to leave the children at home.

The ensemble of Smashed

Photography © Ryoko Uyama

Even if you're at the top of your game, sometimes you will drop a ball - or in this case, an apple. Last year's headline show Cantina turned into a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, because in the first 15 minutes, a tightrope walker fell and reacted with self-loathing and anger. It's not actually the mistake that matters, it's how you deal with it, and where any of the company don't deliberately drop an apple, they instantly diffuse the tension with humour and carry on, showing off some even more skilful work to quickly replace the memory. There's no denying that all nine performers are incredibly talented and know how to work a room.

Apparently around 80 apples are used - and sorry folks, someone apples are harmed in the making of this show - but that estimate, no matter how accurate, just feels very understated. There are so many apples always flying in the air that you feel Gandini Juggling have raided a whole orchard. The performers do some impressive tricks, both solo, and as part of a smaller group, and together deliver a truly compelling hour.

Whenever the Udderbelly comes to the Southbank, it brings a fun, quirky vibe where anything goes. Smashed certainly fits right in - it's unconventional and hugely entertaining. Just remember to avoid that front row - or bring waterproofs.

Smashed opened on 22nd April and runs until 18th May 2014 at the Udderbelly, Southbank.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Northern, Bakerloo, Jubilee)

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