First Night: Nights At The Circus, Lyric Hammersmith, London

An adaptation every bit as magical and cheeky as the novel
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In Knee High's wonderfully cheeky, darkly fantastical stage adaptation of Nights At The Circus, the celebrated magical-realist novel by Angela Carter, there is a sequence near the start calculated to unnerve any male theatre critic.

A bespectacled man in a mac is lured over the footlights by a finger beckoning through the red plush curtains. Venturing on to the stage, he is set upon by a group of theatre folk in dressing gowns and wig-foundations who berate him for taking notes. Smuggling a notebook into a theatre is worse, they claim, than sneaking a pencil into the hotel bedroom on your wedding night. The culprit is Jack Walser (hunky Gisli Orn Gardarsson), a sceptical reporter on The New York Times, and he is determined to debunk the legend of the main character.

She is "Fevvers", the Cockney Venus, a bird-woman who claims to have been hatched from an egg like Helen of Troy. In Carter's novel, she's a hefty, middle-aged, 6ft 2in phenomenon. In this shrewdly-filleted adaptation by director Emma Rice and Tom Morris, she is played by the youthful, slender, medium-sized Natalia Tena. It's arguable that this performer, with her pert, studded breasts and her very modern streaked hair, is too straightforwardly drop-dead sexy, but she's fiery and fierce, earthy and airy, a tempest and a tease, so you don't lose too much of the ambiguity that surrounds this sensational circused aerialiste whose wings betoken both liability (she has to earn her living as a prize freak) and liberty (she's a portent of the New Woman).

This theatrical version of the piece reminds us that the story ends at the dawn of the 20th century, with a recurring song sung by a black actress in topper-and-tails drag: "Die, century, die/give us the chance to let yesterday lie.''

Throughout, there's a droll emphasis on the fact that gender-relations are constructed and therefore alterable. Both male and female genitals are stitched on to the outside of the performers' daft Y-fronts. The carnivalesque show keeps you guessing about the authenticity of Fevvers' half-bird origins. There's a wonderful scene in the St Petersburg section when her trapeze breaks and it looks for a dizzying moment as if her bluff has been called. Then Walser, who has joined the circus to follow her, saved the day by expertly twirling her round on the rope as if this were an intentional stunt. Her feather-tipped wire wings certainly look like a stage prop. But, contradicting that impression, there's the chilling sequence where a pervy stalker offers her diamonds in exchange for these pinions and starts to surgically remove them with a knife.

Sizeable tracts of the novel have been excised - including the final Siberian adventure. But with the central couple climactically somersaulting in a giddy, rapturous aerial display of hard-won equality, I do not feel that the play offers a smaller or thinner experience than the book.

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