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Circus show Lexicon is a charmingly low-tech flight of fancy

It’s reassuring to know it’s still possible to entertain a crowd without recourse to $300 million worth of computer-generated robots. In their new show, Lexicon, at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Nofit State Circus prove that, even in 2018, fire-juggling while riding a unicycle remains impressive.

Lexicon’s first sequence seemed to tease a narrative, introducing the audience to a rowdy classroom of schoolchildren overseen by a floating schoolmistress who looks down Orwellianly from above. After this, though, the storyline waxed incomprehensible as the school desks rose into the air, pulled by human counterweights who climbed down four ladders at the edge of centre stage, introducing a series of loosely connected vignettes.

Dressed in Edwardian tweeds, petticoats, argyle socks and spectator shoes, Nofit State Circus were more Amélie than Ringling Bros – nostalgic and whimsical, contemporary but free of the needless cleverness that presently seems to entangle all forms of entertainment. Atmospheric lighting created a quaint Belle Époque ambience, and the deliberately low-tech spectacle was enhanced by live music ranging from traditional drum-rolls to plainchant and rock in the vein of the Pogues.

Lexicon’s comic vignettes were loudly enjoyed by the audience’s children, usually the truest barometer of quality at any live event. Deliberately wobbly performances – the juggler who threatens to drop his pins and the slack-rope walker who seems on the verge of plunging to earth – are perhaps less perfect, but certainly more gripping, than the mechanical brilliance of Cirque du Soleil. The pratfalls of the torch-juggler who “accidentally” sets himself on fire give the audience a catharsis that a flawless technical exercise in juggling cannot.

There were also many moments of unadulterated performative excellence – such as the spectacle of a unicyclist changing his trousers while doing laps of the stage – and, though an atmosphere of sepia-toned caprice was thick throughout, the lighting and technical effects rarely overwhelmed the impressiveness of the performance.

Lexicon is running until Sunday October 21 at the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Get tickets here.