BEDLAM THEATRE (VENUE 49)
IN 1944, 167 people were killed when the big top caught fire at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. It was one of the biggest civilian disasters in American history and, as Hartford was the insurance capital of the US, sparked an unprecedented degree of litigation.
In We Can't Reach You, Hartford, the confused events of the ill-fated matinee performance are relived by a handful of the survivors, including Weary Willie, the sad clown and circus ringleader.
Their reason for reliving it? To find out why the fire started and who was responsible - but the group of survivors find more than they had bargained for in the tangled web of accusation and counter-accusation. Accident or arson? Revenge or a random attack? Insider or outsider?
The painful story that was in danger of being lost to history is brought to life by a lyrical, well-researched script, slick performances by the cast and Jess Chayes's imaginative direction.
As the innocent pleasure of the matinee turns to terror, the choreography of the characters who move from dancing to dying while the circus orchestra plays on is impeccable, beautiful and touching. Despite the brevity of the play, each is brought sharply to life to tell not only the story of that fateful day, but also of wider American society. This production by Wesleyan University is technically smooth and professional. They're obviously on a budget, but they make full use of every resource available.
The bedraggled circus costumes add a touch of pathos and the set is simple - a sheet customised to resemble the big top - but works well, and imaginative use of lighting effectively shows us the fire.
Although the play is short - only 45 minutes - this adds to the impact.
The only weakness in this world premiere is that there is too much TV-style narrative voiceover.
• Until 19 August.