When they advertise Not Romeo and Juliet as “stupidest and most charming”, Lily Fish and Kimberley Twiner are not wasting their word count. As Ringmaster Veronique Van Direndirensten III (Twiner) strops around the stage, ruffling her own feathers as she schemes her ramshackle circus to stardom, it becomes pure pleasure to giggle at her long suffering assistant Stephanie Sausage (Fish) pick up the pieces after her.
But stupidity is not to be sneezed at. It takes the skills of trained physical comedians – deep seated, heart felt clowns – to bring just the right degree of disorder to the evening’s events. Stephanie Sausage welcomes the audience to the pokey, glitter draped Artshouse stage, charming us with her enthusiasm and attentiveness. Yet before the circus can begin, Stephanie is already distracted, nose in a volume of William Shakespeare. The conflict of Stephanie’s world is thus the choice between the circus, which she is clearly holding together in her wobbly arms, or Shakespeare, a world of verse she delights to whisper in stolen moments.
The circus world Fish and Twiner create in Not Romeo and Juliet truly feels like a foreign, forgotten place where orphan children and beasts alike are caged and groomed for the big tent. Twiner’s parodic presentation as the Ringmaster brings this jarringly unpleasant history into the present, as she reminisces on discoveries found in Eastern Europe while simultaneously planning social media campaigns. There seem to be jokes fluttering throughout the show that go over the heads of circus illiterate folk like me, but the obsession with finding acts in Slovenia and the preference for pronouncing French with an ocker twang are entertaining regardless.
It is impressive to see what two bodies and a petite stage can achieve in sixty minutes. As the Ringmaster charges through each act, Stephanie Sausage transforms on demand, one moment a Strong Woman, the next a hungry beast. The physical constraints of achieving these visions with two clowns, two costumes and a pool noodle, accounts for the creativity of their movements and timing. As the audience applauds each feat, it appears to be one part at the Ringmaster’s cue, one part to commend Stephanie’s physical endurance, and one part delight at Fish and Twiner’s creativity.
However the highlight of the show, and perhaps the element that is most benefited by the direction and advice of Steph Kehoe, is the queer turn. This is not in itself surprising, Fish and Twiner also being members of queer comedy group PO PO MO CO, a group often preoccupied with questions of a sensual nature. Yet Stephanie and Veronique find a unique mutual interest in performing Shakespeare that is thoroughly amusing. This tangent derails the circus acts at just the right time, grinding its jaunty momentum to a halt and shifting it in a new direction.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Not Romeo and Juliet is that is resolutely appealing and open to audiences anywhere between six and sixty. Certainly the age demographic of the opening night audience almost achieved this feat, and in this regard the show truly reflects what originally drew people to the circus, back in its problematic heyday. Fish and Twiner succeed in delving into queer romance, while remaining appealing to young and old with delightful simplicity, and charming physical comedy.