Culture

Swinging London – how new circus show SOHO is bringing London to life

The cast and crew of new West End circus show SOHO on London's creative heart – and why they're putting a Big Issue vendor centre stage…

A new circus show is hitting the West End, bringing the music and characters of Soho to acrobatic life. And The Big Issue is taking centre stage. Why? Because when the creators of SOHO were looking for symbols of London’s iconic cultural centre, alongside Madame Jojo’s nightclub, Chinatown, swinging 1960s sounds, punks and market traders, they included, of course, The Big Issue – a constant presence in the heart of London for the past quarter of a century.

Director Abigail Yeates says: “Soho has always been a magnet for a rich variety of people, and we want our show to reflect that. We want audiences to connect with the characters at the heart of the show, whether that is the market traders, artists, baristas, shoppers, lost souls or homeless people. All of life is drawn to Soho.

“We did toy with the idea of having a homeless person drinking in Soho Square as part of the show. But we substituted the beer can for a Big Issue.”

A scene set in Soho Square

And will we see the vendor performing acrobatics in the heart of Soho while selling the magazine?

“Yes! He is in Soho for the same reason as everyone else. Because it is a place of opportunity, excitement, reinvention and life. He is working to make a better future, just like the other characters. That also fits with our ethos about using young performers.”

The Big Issue vendor in the show is played by Loric Fouchereau – a hand-to-hand acrobat from France. He describes his style as “fluid acrobatics influenced by contemporary arts”. Fouchereau relates to the character, having himself spent time on the streets as a youngster. “It is important to me that I’m playing this role,” he says.

“It feels very similar to the way the circus community works in France, which can help people help themselves by giving them skills, confidence and inspiration. So it is about helping yourself out of your situation, supported by others. I was in the same position as a homeless person when I was 15 and 16. I was looking for some way to make my life better, to be part of a group. A group can be there for you. This character I play in SOHO resonates with me. When you are in that position it is really gratifying and important to have people to reach out to.”

The show, a hybrid of circus, dance and theatre, is the first to be written, made and produced by Stufish – an architectural arts company which has designed and built stage sets for Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, U2, Bollywood films and the Beijing Olympics. “SOHO shows the creativity that makes London tick,” says Stufish CEO Ray Winkler.

An energetic young cast of acrobats, trapeze artists, hip hop dancers, martial artists, hoop and silk performers, a drag act and a handstand specialist will bring this vision of London to vivid life at the Peacock Theatre. In the show, a newcomer to Soho – played by Chinese pole specialist Alessio Motta – wanders into this weird and wonderful world, crosses paths with local characters from drag artists and peep show performers to cafe workers, boxers in a gym, delivery men and a Big Issue vendor, and gradually begins to find his place. An everyday story of arrival in London, then, with added trapeze action.

Hoop artist Leah Wolff reads The Big Issue during rehearsals

Watching them rehearsing is hugely impressive. Such feats of acrobatics, strength and balance, as well as teamwork. Motta teaches hip hop dancer Kayla Lomas-Kirton and Team GB martial artist Anton Simpson-Tidy climbing techniques. Trapeze performer Xander Taylor, hoop artist Leah Wolff and muscular aerial straps ace Charlee DeBolla swap high-flying ideas as they rehearse a section of the show set in a housing co-operative. “We are all learning on this job,” says Wolff.

We’ve already envisaged a $200million version of this show

The troupe is holed up at Stufish Productions’ base just outside Bergerac in France for the four-week rehearsal period. The converted walnut and tobacco farm has barns repurposed to accommodate the performers and a large communal dining space in the main farmhouse. An old tobacco storage area is now a dance studio. And there’s a purpose-built rehearsal studio / theatre that, at more than 12metres tall, can accommodate all the trapezes and hoops required to put on a show that hopes to challenge the recent domination of Canada’s Cirque De Soleil.

Soho12
Leah Wolff in SOHO's peep show scene

Production director Paul Cockle is certainly thinking big. “We hope we get the opportunity to scale up,” he says. “We’ve already envisaged a $200million version of this show, with all the bells and whistles and a bigger cast.”

The show opens at an interesting time for Soho. For so long an area dominated by neon lights and known for its palaces of hedonistic pleasure, the arrival of Crossrail has seen small businesses, long-term residents and dive bars alike displaced. There are fears the area’s unique edgy glamour is on the wane.

“That makes this is the perfect time to put on the show,” says director Yeates.

Danny Ash, whose character is a long-term Soho resident, and who performs a unique drag act way above the stage wrapped in the circus silks, is convinced the artistic side of Soho will survive the upheaval.

“I still perform there regularly,” he tells us, relaxing by the pool at Stufish Productions in the sun, a blue bandage on his arm caused by a recent Vogue-ing injury.

“My act is all about sexual liberation. I’ve done my Vladimir Putin drag show, lipsynching his speeches while riding a hobby horse, topless, at The Box, which still puts on lots of interesting acts in the heart of Soho.

“But it is changing. I see Soho from a gay man’s perspective, and it can feel very straight now on a night out.

“So I was keen to make sure the gay scene was well represented in SOHO. I pushed for gay moments in the show – I was sending Abigail drag videos even before we started rehearsing!”

The extravaganza promises to showcase the future of circus talent, with music ranging from David Bowie, whose song Changes is the soundtrack to a section on housing and gentrification, to former Soho resident Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The show celebrates the artistic heart of London – and what a thrill to see a Big Issue vendor at the heart of the action….

SOHO runs at the Peacock Theatre in London from 6-20 May – tickets on sale now…

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