One Ring Circus

I’m outside Stratford Circus trying to take a photo of an angel in an upstairs window. I saw angel, but what I mean is a display of angelic looking white wings. And I saw trying, because there is a street cleaner with a trolley coming my way.

I pause, lowering my phone, waiting until he passes.

Except, he's not passing. He's aiming right for me.

I jump backwards, having visions of being run over but a cleaning trolley and having to spend the rest of time haunting the nearest bin. Max the Ground of Theatre Square. Doomed to spend eternity watching people rush excitedly into the neighbouring theatres of Stratford East and Stratford Circus, and never get to see a show. Feeding off the crumbs of gossip and old tickets that they leave behind.

But I didn't get hit. Instead, the trolley stopped. Directly in front of me. Blocking my shot.

Stratford clearly ain’t got time for any of this hipster Instagram nonsense.

Nor had I.

My show this evening has a 7pm start time, and I haven't even picked up my ticket yet.

I extricate myself from behind the trolley and dash across the road towards Stratford Circus. I'm so dazzled by the fluorescent orange banners flapping in the breeze I entirely miss the entrance and have to double back.

It's orange. The same hue as the banners. But with two strip lights set behind a wall of translucent orange plastic, angled to form an arrow that points directly towards the door. Blimey, I must be tired, walking right past this. There's even an A-frame set outside. "Stratford Circus Arts Centre," it reads, for those who need the extra help.

This does not bode well.

Oh well. There's nothing for it. I go inside, go to the box office (orangey-red), and pick up my ticket (not orange), and buy a programme (also not orange. Kinda blue-ish purple actually. And pink).

It's been a while since I last visited Stratford Circus. Years and years now that I come to think about it. So long, that I can't actually remember where the main theatre space is.

I look around.

The main foyer is packed. Mostly full of people queuing up at the bar. There's a staircase right next to the box office, leading up to what seems like an Escher-like series of galleries and mezzanines stretching up to the heavens.

I look up, shading my eyes against the thousands of tiny faerielights set into the ceiling of each level.

There's a big number 3 on the glass high above, with a smaller "Circus" above it. Circus 3. There's a Circus 3? Circus 2 I knew about. That's the studio space. And Circus 1 was where I was heading for. But what's Circus 3? And more importantly, how many circuses are there in this place?

I get out my phone. I have to know.

Theatre websites are surprisingly coy about their spaces. Rarely can you search a list of events by venue, and very often they won't even tell you the space it's in before you get to the booking page. Often I left clicking around, putting random tickets in my basket just to find out which shows are where, and giving box officers across London major headaches as tickets appear and disappear from their system as I do so.

You'd be surprised to know how many secondary studios I've only found out about because I saw a sign for them when I was in the building. Just like I was now.

But there's one place where you kind find this info. And that's the hires page.

I find it.

"Stratford Circus Arts Centre has a range of spaces that are perfect for meetings, live performances, celebration and training events," says the website. Great.

"C1 - Auditorium," reads the first one. That must be Circus 1. I've already got that covered. I move on. "C2 - Studio Theatre," is next. I don't got that covered, but it's on my list, so I'll get to it eventually. Onwards. "C3 - Dance Studio." There it is. Circus 3. It looks nice. "A large and airy rehearsal space with sprung dance floor, mirrors and adjustable blinds; adaptable for a variety of events including classes, rehearsals, workshops and performance." Performance, It's suitable for performance. Shit. Does it need to go on the list? It probably needs to go on the list. Do they programme things there? How do I even check? I mean, apart from the adding random tickets from every single show into my basket...

I quickly close the tab. I'm not going to add it to the list. What I'm going to do it pretend that this never happened, and you are too. And if you even mention the fact that there is a C4 (Multi-purpose space) on the website, I'm going to have to take a course of action that you won't like, and I won't be held responsible for.

Enough of that. I put my phone away and turn around. There appears to be a queue. A very long queue. But this one doesn't lead to the bar. People are looking at their tickets and stuffing the remains of half-eaten sandwiches into their mouths. It looks like we're going in. I find the end of the line and add myself to it. At least the question of where is Circus 1 is not something I have to worry about anymore.

Circus 1, it turns out, is on the ground floor. As is the stage, which is on floor level, leaving a large back of bench seats to rise up from it. There's also a couple of narrow circles above us, but those seem to be closed off.

"This is so cool," someone whispers loudly as we all try to figure out where we want to sit.

They're not wrong. It is pretty cool.

There's a boxing ring set up on the stage, and its surrounded but young people dancing like butterflies and stinging like bees. I find a seat in the middle of the fourth row and try to look like the sort of person who understands boxing.

It doesn't work.

So instead I pull my fan out of my bag and try to cool off. If I'm not going to be someone who looks like they understand or partakes in sport, I might as well embrace it and run full tilt in the other direction. Well, I say run, but perhaps stumble slowly is more my style. Or "adagio walking," as a dance critic once described my prefered level of exertions.

I do kind of like the idea of seeing two people deck each other though. I mean... that's kinda why I wanted to see this. Libby Liburd's Fighter is billed as a play about female boxers fighting for the right to... well, fight. Which I am well into. Just because of my own physical cowardice, doesn't mean that I don't have a hefty appreciation of those that are willing to take a punch in the name of feminism in other people.

And oof, Libby Liburd's Lee is willing to take a punch, both literal and metaphorical. There's no keeping her down.

The clock roles back twenty-one years, and she bounces into Tommy's Gym, shiny new gym back and smart mouth at the ready. Neither of which get her very far in the world of ninety's boxing gyms. Woman have only been allowed to fight (allowed!) for two years and the message hasn't quite filtered down to the local gym level quite yet.

But she's got the babysitter in and she's not to be turned away. Or at least, not for long. As she's back the next day, and the next, and the next. It's 1998 and the Spice Girls have been preaching the gospel of Girl Power for four years now. There's nothing Lee can't do, and she's got the brand new Lonsdale top to prove it.

Nothing can stop her.

Almost nothing.

Except for the Achilles' heel of the single-mother.

That's where Lee's real fight begins.

And I'm feeling it. The empowerment. The Girl Power. Lee can do anything, and by extension, I can do everything.

I feel myself puffing up with second-hand pride.

The big fight scene's coming. Eye of the Tiger is pounding through the sound system. Lee is coming down the steps of the stalls, the spotlight bouncing off her pink satin robe and...

Lights dim. The scene changes. We're flung forward in time. Back to 2019.

The boxing ring is full of cute kids practising their swings.

Oh. No fight? I deflate back to normal size. I mean... fine. I get it. But I was all psyched up to see two ladies punching each other and now... okay.

Just have to settle for feeling all empowered and shit. Which is alright. I suppose.

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