Le Coup, 23 June, Wollongong Spiegeltent

The stage for Le Coup

Le Coup is a fantastic vaudeville circus cabaret show we saw on the tiny stage in the Wollongong Spiegeltent. In just over an hour, the five physical performers packed in aerial acrobatics on trapeze and ropes, juggling, fire eating, sword swallowing, tap dancing, bullwhip (with audience participation, on ya “Dingo”), ground acrobatics, rope skipping, hand balancing, and classic pratfalls – all with a three piece multi-instrumentalist band that was genuinely musically interesting as well as often involved in the action.

I wasn’t surprised to see names like Circus Oz, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus and the Moscow State Circus in the bios of the performers. At an individual level, these are performers at the top of their game, stretching themselves (literally) to explore new edges to their craft. In terms of new talent in Australian circus, this is a bit of an all star cast, put together by Chelsea McGuffin, whose extensive circus background includes Wollongong’s own Circus Monoxide. With Le Coup, she has taken contemporary circus to a new level.

A fine example is Olivia Porter as Beaver the Diva, whose juggling routine was a real eye opener. She started with a single soft ball (“soft” meaning it wouldn’t bounce), which she picked up from the floor in an often mystifying series of foot movements, to somehow lodge the ball in her hand, her armpit, the back of her knee, the crook of her elbow, and on her head and the back of her neck. She repeated this with two balls, and the introduction of a third brought lightning fast cascades, showers and fountains. With two more balls, she climaxed with a brief but extremely impressive five ball juggle that brought gasps and cheers from the crowd. Beaver also showed off her skipping skills, which again were unusual to say the least and involved some very unlikely looking physical body bending.

Le Coup is more than just a showcase of skills, though. It’s hung together ostensibly as a fight night, a pastiche of the old Australian boxing troupes of of the 40s and 50s. I remember a troupe like this at the Royal Hobart Show in the 60s, where local lads could try their luck against the troupe’s fighters, mostly formidable indigenous fighters. In Le Coup, however, the fights are based on contests of circus and musical skills, with plenty of jokes and a slightly seedy air. Kind of like Jimmy Sharman meets Jim Rose.

The whole is held together by a ringmaster character, The Boss, played by Jacqueline Furey. With a background in dance, striptease and burlesque, and dressed in all in tight red with stiletto heels and revealing cleavage, The Boss is part announcer and part dominatrix, with plenty of repartee to titillate the punters. It’s a demanding role and she handles it with aplomb, as well displaying thrilling skills with her sword swallowing, fire sticks and whip.

The performers also include Manaleya Kaydos-Nitis as Sally the Alley Cat, who had several turns of powerful and elegant aerial acrobatics on the trapeze and ropes, drawing gasps from the crowd. Hilton Dennis played the King of the Ring, who also displayed grace and strength in his aerobatic turns, as well as a charming (and exhausting) tap dance battle against a manic banjo. For the physical performers, the final part of the equation was Danik Abishev as Fred, initially portrayed as the loser of the group, a none too bright clown.

Fred’s climactic hand balancing on five upright supports was a highlight of the show, though, even as The Boss tried to tell him his part had been cut because of too many accidents (he had a black eye to prove it). As he leapt and balanced vertically upside down and sideways across the uprights supports with only his hands to support him, all the while with a manic gleam in his eye, his immense strength, balance and sheer skill was increasingly evident.

I also have to mention the music. It’s not unusual to have a couple of multi-instrumentalists providing backing for a show like this, but Le Coup took this, too, to new extremes. With bass, drums, electric and acoustic guitar, electric and acoustic mandolin, trumpets, banjo, and percussion, there was a feel that went beyond musical sound effects to something solidly grounded in between bluegrass, New Orleans jazz, big band swing and driving rock. It made sense for me when I saw C.W. Stoneking among the credits of musical director “Father” Grant Arthur who, incidentally and kind of weirdly appropriately, played this show with a broken finger courtesy of a dog bite.

Father Grant’s fellow musicians Ben Harrison as The Bookie and Bonnie Stewart as Mary Murderess were equally eclectic in their range of instruments and styles. There was more than one sequence where the musical backing was much more than that, a delightful soundtrack worthy of listening to in its own right. And, of course, all three musicians were part of the action, playing off each other and their circus skilled compatriots.

I’d like to give a little shoutout, too, to the detailed audio welcome to country played before the show began, followed by a further acknowledgement by The Boss of the indigenous inhabitants of the country we live on, “never ceded”. It was respectful, firm and absolutely right.

On the whole, then, Le Coup was breathtaking, funny, edgy, cheeky and highly entertaining, especially from the front row.

Highly recommended.

Le Coup: https://www.chelseamcguffin.com/our-work/le-coup
At the Spiegeltent: https://spiegeltentwollongong.com/what-s-on/le-coup-1339
Presented by Merrigong: https://merrigong.com.au/shows/le-coup/

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