"Just watch out if you're in the way of the Russian swing", warns the man on stage before the lights go out. Russian swing. Sounds like it might be some kind of dance music, or perhaps a parlour game popular with married oligarchs. No? Maybe a military manoeuvre, a new tool for annexation?
It's actually a type of circus. And it's a suitable starting sentence, heralding as it does the beginning of Circus Fest's five week programme of dare devil acts. Circus is, after all, partly about performers taking risks that make audiences squirm, that make them "watch out".
Take the classic apparatus you'd find in a playground, then imagine something much more solid and able to host six men at once. Sometimes it's strapped to the floor, sometimes it's unnervingly loose. In full swing, it's able to propel a person at high speed some distance into the air.
Compagnie La Meute (The Wolf Pack), dressed in nothing but precariously placed towels, are currently showing audiences how Russian swing is done in the main space at the Roundhouse, London's very own big-top of bricks.
Their show – also called La Meute – is loose, shifting nonchalantly in pace and mood. Sometimes it's slow, silent and even comes to a worrying halt (we're unsure if this was planned or not). At other points it's frenetic, slapstick, loud. Music is important, with the all-male cast able to sing and play sax and guitar, as well as perform acrobatic feats. Sometimes they do both at once.
The men, in their rather bemusing towel nappies, use the Russian swing to full and comic effect, blending ease with nerves of steel. They are careful to make sure we realise its power, letting it smash cups out of their hands and landing with thumping force when they fly off it.
The swing is, of course, a focal point but only half the action takes place on it. The rest is floor-based tumbling and balancing acts. Clearly a close knit group of friends, the performers enjoy playing tricks on each other, plus inflicting a certain amount of pain – from toying towel slaps to the face, to some eye-watering handstands resting on each other's groins.
La Meute isn't breathtaking or flashy; the company lay their effort bare to an extent. A quiet moment towards the end, where one performer carefully applies chalk to his hands under the warm glow of an anglepoise lamp, has a welcome intimacy and honesty. Overall, it's an interesting start to a festival that promises an exciting array of circus shows over the next few weeks.