The Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow is Britain’s oldest surviving music hall. In its Victorian heyday, it had glittering vaudeville stars on stage, a menagerie in the basement, and freak-shows aplenty, monetising the pain of the tiny or disfigured. It’s that rough, raw sense of a civilisation full of tatty glitter on the surface, but founded on deep layers of pain and cruelty, that cuts like a knife through Mischief La Bas’s remarkable, playful street spectacular Nursery Crymes, seen in the Panopticon and the Trongate lanes around it over the weekend.
Nursery Crymes, Trongate, Glasgow *****
First inspired by the sense of a dark underbelly to the nursery rhymes we all learn in childhood, Nursery Crymes begins in Parnie Street with a jagged, ten-food-high shadow-image of figures from Three Blind Mice, Rockabye Baby and Bo Peep.
A fierce Glaswegian Mother Goose – played with menacing glamour by Maryam Hamidi – welcomes us to the show, and invites us to remember some rough children’s rhymes from the streets around the Tron, tales of dead children and Gallowgate jail, the last ending with a fiercely ironic “God Save The Queen”. Then we’re off, through a forest of rags and birdsong into a lane where nursery rhymes seep all too slowly from the walls, while three Humpty Dumpties shot by firing squad bleed on the wall, and a wan Bo Peep hands out leaflets seeking her lost sheep.
We commune – through live installation and video by Fiona Robertson – with a giant head that devours people. Then, in a cobbled back lane beside a crashed car surrounded by the outlines of bodies, the police herd us around through fingerprint checks and interrogations, until we reach a corner where French artist Dav Bernard, dressed as an executioner, invites us to sing lusty choruses of Alouette, a song of dismemberment with many disputed meanings.
Up in the Panopticon, meanwhile, Brighton-based artist-choreographer Liz Aggiss treats us to a film of a brutal, blood-stained variety show, followed by two fierce live dance acts, while mulled wine is served, and a charming Victorian couple invite us into the history of the Panopticon itself. And then finally, in the F**ked Up Fairground, there are four brightly-lit stalls offering a devastating insight into how the global system remains weighted against the poor and the hungry; you can feel the futility in your very bones, as you stand pelting the coconut-shy of global exploitation with a tiny, soft rubber balls.
There’s plenty of fun to be had on the way through Nursery Crymes, in other words – games, laughter, memories; and Mischief La Bas’s Angie Dight, with overall designer Bill Breckinridge, has pulled together a fine piece of promenade entertainment for grown-ups.
Yet this is also a brilliantly conceived show that packs a huge and powerful civilisational punch, a devastating critique of the tolerance for cruelty and destruction that is often hidden in our adult language, but leaks out through those nursery tales; and although Nursery Crymes has gone for now, my guess is that this show will soon be back, in cities across the UK, and the world.