Slava’s Snow Show, Royal Festival Hall, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Slava Polunin’s brand of melancholic clowning has become a Royal Festival Hall Christmas tradition. Polunin’s Yellow Clown, with fluffy slippers, oversized yellow onesie and a bulbous red nose, could be a Jim Henson Muppet creation come to life.

But for those new to the Slava phenomenon, the opening moments of Slava’s Snow Show may appear to be uncharacteristically melancholic for a Christmas show. The yellow clown (named Assissiaï in the programme) shuffles on stage with a rope, which he lassos around his neck in the form of a noose – only to find that hanging himself is made harder by the other end of the impossibly long rope forming a noose around a doppelgänger clown’s neck.

It is the first of several scenes which eke humour out of the trope of the sad clown. The troupe is fleshed out with a variety of clowns in oversized shoes, green greatcoats and winged hats. A series of sketches, narratively unconnected, unfold in an almost dreamlike manner. Polunin’s staging includes both child-like fantasy play, such as when an iron bedstead is transformed into a pirate ship, and more abstract scenes, many of which involve the show’s recurring obsession with spheres.

If there is a theme, it is one of sadness and loneliness, the yellow clown never quite fitting in despite the green clowns milling around him. From telephone conversations where he pretends to be two sides of a tumultuous relationship, to the show’s most touching sequence where a coat on a hatstand becomes the clown’s proxy lover, there is a sense of the cause of the hero’s melancholy woven throughout.

And yet the overarching emotion is one of delight. From wonder at the spinning of a miniature earth, to the sheer joy of a clown attempting – and failing – to sit on a tilted chair, Slava’s Snow Show excels in its simpler moments.

It is the moments of large-scale audience involvement, though, which contribute the most to the sense of wonder. Early on in the first act, a fibrous spider web descends over the stalls audience, but that pales into insignificance next to the show’s now legendary finale, a snowstorm which extends out into the crowd. What in many other shows would constitute an encore is turned over to the audience, as giant balloons bouncing around the auditorium cause every audience member to revert to their inner child.

It is those final moments, the grandiloquent gestures, that make the departing audience think of Slava’s Snow Show as a grand piece of clowning. But really, it is just as much the quiet moments – the raising of a coat sleeve, the gentle sweep of the broom – that help define this as a magical piece of art.

Continues until 4 January 2018.

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