The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Vaudeville Theatre, London
Thursday 23 June 2011
You don't get what it says on the tin. They don't fly, they're not Russian and they're not brothers. And their line of patter is a little less dense than Dostoevsky's: "We're working without a net tonight." "We didn't invite her." Boom-boom, as Basil Brush used to say.
What you do get are four hairy fellows in kilts from Seattle throwing Indian clubs and flaming torches around for 90 minutes while blowing brass instruments and compiling a list of "terror" objects they will juggle at the end of the show. Only one of these seems terrifying: the machete. Who's scared of an egg, or a block of ice, or a ukulele?
They can be seen in terrifying contexts, however, and this is where the script comes in; or, rather, falls down. When they first surfaced over 30 years ago, the Karamazovs were a post-hippie phenomenon, all four of them sporting grizzly beards and ponytails. They were like a kinetic version of those outrageous Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in the underground comic strip.
Now, the banter seems both dated and twee, the come-ons to the audience – and a targeted lady in the front row – impertinent bordering on distasteful. Though the lead Karamazov, Dmitri, is still played by the group's founding spirit, Paul Magid, his colleagues – Alexei, Pavel and Zossima – are played by callow youths in comparison, and they are less hippie than just happy.
Magid executes the most renowned challenge of the night: a commitment to juggle anything the audience throws at him, though it's hard to imagine anyone turning up for a West End opening with a bag of flour, a cream cake or a bunch of stuck-together bacon rashers.
These objects are duly juggled, all part of the surreal pointlessness of it all. Juggling is all very well, I find, in small doses, on a variety bill with a singer or an ecdysiast to come. But there are a few sublime sequences here to challenge that prejudice, and time stands still as the clubs fly through the air, forming weird patterns and spinning slowly, manually re-directed with a velvety plip-plop sound accompaniment.
Occasionally they fall to the ground, but it's a Karamazov speciality to make virtue of disaster, and there's a wonderful moment when Pavel is obliged to walk, untouched, through a canopy of airborne clubs in order to retrieve an errant one in the corner of the stage.
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