When I was a kid, the height of scariness was getting into the Ghost Train at the funfair and being told to “keep your hands inside the car at all times for your own safety.” Then we would trundle forward into the gloom, through a dusty curtain, tightly packed into a painted crate with wheels. Spooky faces or bodies would swing out suddenly in front of us, against a backdrop of strange noises and the indifference of teenagers who had paid to snog each other in the dark.
Well, that was the 1980s (or the 1970s, if you’re counting), and this is 30 years on. People are worldlier and more technologically sophisticated in what they demand for entertainment. So now – welcome to Free Run. This is the show based on free running, that form of functional acrobatics where athletic – and let’s be honest, mostly young – people aim to make their way across urban buildings and landscapes without being deflected by obstacles. They do this by jumping, rolling, swinging and flipping like psychedelic cats; there’s more trickery and swagger than the efficient French parkour from which it’s derived. Free running became popular in the UK after the documentary Jump London was released in 2003, and I remember how the small clutch of fanatics on the South Bank grew into big groups of aspiring teenagers in the following five years. It was faintly worrying watching them throw themselves from one concrete block to another, but compelling too.
It got into mainstream consciousness sufficiently to merit a French and Saunders spoof in the Christmas special of 2006, but never lent itself to more than ad hoc performance in front of passers by – after all, by design, it happens in real-life outdoor locations. But in a bid to take it to the masses, a group of performers called 3Run has this year put together a show that can be staged indoors: et voila, Free Run. Billed as ‘spectacular entertainment for all ages’, a group of highly athletic and scantily dressed young men throw themselves enterprisingly around a minimal set: a few blocks, walls and pipes. The space is deliberately tuned to be dark and menacing. Portentous signs and announcements tell you to ‘sit tight, and don’t you dare leave your seat!’ Hand and arm movements are discouraged lest they get in the way of the scary leaping acrobats. Pounding music fills the space, strobe lighting flashes. Jagged video inserts give the guys time to catch their breath after their extraordinary feats. There is a long interlude where half a dozen of the performers put on a dystopian role play – three robot type baddies in robot type baddie outfits, chasing three innocent and creative escapees.
It’s a slightly odd beast, and not what I expected. It’s inescapable that the feats look less impressive in the neutered indoor environment than they do in the wild, which is fine – that’s not a surprise. The troupe were at their best when they ignored that constraint and injected something close to the determined yet upbeat spirit of the outdoor pursuit. Mostly, that meant the more free-form and exuberant section towards the end, an extended set of impressive solos from each player (though the constant exhortations to applaud each
trick mean that the audience was clapping slightly manically for 20 minutes straight). The stylised staging of the first two-thirds of the show by contrast felt a bit overworked, and slow in pace – the last thing I’m sure they wanted to convey.
But it strikes me that I may not have been the intended audience. It had never occurred to me that this was for kids, perhaps because I’ve personally always enjoyed watching free runners and I’ve always seen it as something like an urban dance. But there’s no doubt that the ‘for all ages’ tag is a strong signal; despite the scary staging, the audience was packed with children looking for their very own Ghost Train experience. I noticed that there was a tiny boy, maybe 4 years old, sitting on the edge of his seat with his mouth open throughout the show. I saw he wasn’t the only one – although some were clearly terrified, the kids were mostly mesmerised. And as we sat in deckchairs outside the venue after the show, the Udderbelly was full of small bundles throwing themselves alarmingly around the ground, turning half cartwheels and wiggling their feet in the air. Probably a better outcome than the funfair ever achieved.
Free Run is on at the Udderbelly on the South Bank till 17 July, and then at the Edinburgh Fringe from 5-29 August.
You can check out 3Run in their natural environment here: