Circus performer, fire player, clown and motorbike rider Kitty Bang Bang shares her experiences as a circus performer at the Roundhouse and takes a look back at big circus shows that have taken place here…
The Roundhouse holds an abiding and special place in my heart, because it happens to be the location of the very first time that I appeared in public completely naked as an adult. Let me qualify, I was also wearing a pair of black leather ankle boots and a lick of black paint but these accoutrements aside; I think anyone in the audience would tell you if questioned, that I was pretty damn nude. I’ve gone on to grace the Roundhouse stage sans attire in three different productions now, and total nudity isn’t something I regularly add into my shows by any means. But I like to think maybe the punk spirit of the place seeps into my bones and I’m compelled to remove everything. That’s my excuse anyway…
My name is Kitty Bang Bang and I’m a burlesque and circus performer. I dance, I clown, I ride motorbikes and I play with fire. I’ve been performing for about ten years now and I’ve slowly moved from my initial incarnation as a burlesque performer into some sort of pyromaniac. I love performing with fire and my quest to find venues in which to do bigger and better fire shows is probably one of the reasons I find the venue so appealing. I’m actually a Camden resident and if I stood on the roof of my house, I could probably throw a stone and hit the Roundhouse. It’s practically my local and my house has served as an unofficial afterparty for more than a few shows over the years. When I first moved here, my husband ( a huge history and music buff) would tell me stories about the venue’s transformation from railway repair shed to a venue hosting a nascent Pink Floyd and other musical legends including The Doors. I knew many stories about the Roundhouse before I’d even stepped inside.
My first real encounter of the Roundhouse was to cheer on Fancy Chance as she took the title in Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World pageant in 2009. Little did I know that 5 years later I would be producing my own alternative circus show in the venue for the Summer Sessions season. But that wasn’t the first time I appeared onstage there. In 2010 I joined the cast of the post-apocalyptic cult sensation Trash City who were presenting their very first non-festival show as part of CircusFest. It was directed by my friend Ruby Blues (Ruth Ivo) and starring Le Gateau Chocolat, Ryan Styles, Empress Stah and Fancy Chance amongst others. The set design was by the phenomenal Block 9, famous for their badass creations at Glastonbury. The set was amazing, bombed out buildings and seedy red neon lights. We did the creation for the show in the Roundhouse’s maze of rehearsal rooms. I remember lots of laughing and rolling around on the floor, and somehow I volunteered to get naked during my number. I owned at the time, a 3/4 size chopper motorbike that had customised with huge handlebars and sprayed all over with flames. My act in the show started with me revving the supremely loud engine in the carpark outside then roaring around the wall of the venue past the watching crowds and back behind the set where I drove up a ramp and then out onto the stage. The only problem was that the bike was too long and too low to make it over a lip at the top of the ramp. So every night, my heart was pretty much in my mouth as I revved it to get up the ramp, then had to stop in just the right place and whack the bike into neutral while the stagehands lifted me over the final hurdle. Then I’d gun the engine to speed onto stage. To make things worse, the stupid bike regularly broke down in the carpark while I was waiting to go on. After all that, naked fire breathing seemed pretty easy in comparison.
My next Roundhouse performance was for the Olivier-winning La Soiree’s New Year’s Eve afterparty in 2011. I got to ride another motorbike (full sized this time) up to their famous little red stage and then there was more naked fire breathing on top of their grand piano. I think it has to be my best New Year’s Eve to date. La Soiree has to be my favourite circus show at the Roundhouse and has for a long time been a huge inspiration to me as a performer. The ‘dysfunctional family’ as they call the cast are all pretty dysfunctional but wildly talented.
Well, when I say favourite show, I’m not including my own in that line up! In the summer of 2014, my husband and I were invited to bring our own circus show to the Roundhouse. The Boom & Bang Circus was something we’d been producing for a while in a smaller venue and we jumped at the chance to bring our show to such a huge and iconic stage. Planning the show was a pretty daunting experience, but it was one of the proudest nights of my life when we sold out. We bought live guitars, aerial silks, giant mirror balls, cyr wheels, insane clowns and a whole host of skilled performers to the stage. I, as was now tradition, got naked, but this time on roller-skates in the audience as the room was lit up by a four foot disco ball with a beautiful blonde Russian contorting atop it. The show was hosted by drag legend Jonny Woo and featured some of London’s premier circus artists including Katharine Arnold, Valeria Murzak, Felipe Reyes and Jo Moss.
The Roundhouse has long been a home for circus. And I’m not the first person to remove clothing there by a long shot. Le Grande Magique circus made the venue their home first in 1972 and later in ’74 and ’75. I’m not quite old enough to have born witness to this show but a street juggler, Toby Philpott recalls watching the show and was recognised by one of the performers. He says “They threw me on to juggle at the end, then let me leave my gear in the dressing room, telling me to entertain the queues outside for the rest of the run. One night I was backstage chatting to two performers as they prepared for an entrance, and they were taking their clothes off, so I joined them, and found myself running right through the audience, stark naked, just for the hell of it. A less involved audience member, Jim Ripley went to see Le Grande Magique as a 12 year old boy and he remembers it as “naked people. Chaos.” He didn’t recall following any story, but says “the whole thing stayed with me and introduced me to performance, art, acting, naked bodies, laughter and of course; the amazing Roundhouse at Chalk Farm.” “I have never been the same since!!” he exclaims at the end of his recollections, and I understand what he was feeling because the space and the productions I have been part of in the Roundhouse engendered the same excitement in me.
The Roundhouse has also been host to a number of spectacle-led, theatrical large circus productions too. Most notably Circolombia, Fuerzabruta and NoFit State Circus. Circolombia debuted at the Roundhouse back in 2011 with artists from all over Colombia. Their shows fuse dance with circus and a soundtrack that will have you meringue-ing in your seat. They’re a pretty young company and most of their artists trained and graduated through the National School of Circo Para Todos, a place that supports some of the most vulnerable, at risk young people in Colombia. Their energy is infectious, and their tricks are insane! Circolombia make full use of those high Roundhouse ceilings.
Another company who make use of the Roundhouse ceiling… walls… floor, but in a breathtakingly different way is Fuerzabruta, the fastest selling show in Roundhouse history. The Argentinian company envelope the audience in a sensual assault. I have a special place in my heart for the final company I want to mention, NoFit State Circus. They brought their show ‘Bianco’ to the Roundhouse in 2013, and watching, it seemed like the Roundhouse could be the only venue to accommodate it so beautifully. I’ll admit it now so we can all get past it, I actually cried slightly at the finale of this show. A girl flies up into the air on a trapeze as flakes of snow rain down upon her and the audience. There is something pretty magical about the whole spectacle. The live band add a haunting quality to some sections of the show, while joyous trampoline action brings the laughs. The camaraderie between the cast is palpable, Bianco is a show with heart and soul and I wanted to run away with them at the end, even though I’m already part of the circus.
The Roundhouse has been home to so much circus that has inspired and influenced me in many many ways. And with the gentrification of London and the loss of so many iconic entertainment venues, it only increases in importance. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve cheered and I’ve had the time of my life in the Roundhouse. Long may it reign!