Tubular Bells Live with Circa

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
August 7, 2021

I was 9 years old when Tubular Bells came out and beginning to busy myself learning the orchestral repertoire. I’ve never had much interest in pop music but even I was aware of (and liked) Mike Oldfield’s landmark album.

Robin Smith’s Southbank production, which features contemporary circus from Australian contemporary circus ensemble Circa to the music, marks the 50th anniversary of the conception of the work, although it wasn’t actually released for another two years, in 1973. On the face of it, it’s an odd choice as a concert piece, although while very much a creation of the studio, it has been performed live before.

Even in the splendid refurbished acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, the balance was not quite right; louder, heavier instrumentation tending to drown out the delicacy of the mandolin and even the piano. There was no depth to anything. It sounded tinny and, at times, strangely distorted. If it hadn’t been that the other music on the programme sounded fine, I’d had sworn it was a speaker or amplifier problem.

Circa in Tubular Bells Live at the Royal Festival Hall
Photo Manuel Harlan

Circa have been frequent visitors over the years. After a year of lockdown, they were the first major Australian arts company back in the studio without distancing and the first to return to the international stage. They are a fine ensemble but, on this occasion, the ten performers added just another, if anything the biggest, distraction.

Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz’s floor work choreography, full of rolls and tumbling, is pleasing and empathises with the flow of the music. The more acrobatic elements, the towers of bodies and tissu was antagonistic, however. While daring and skilled, it started to feel repetitive and was also not always a smooth as one would expect. Two of the women struggled visibly in places and the nerves seemed to spread through the others.

At just under an hour, Tubular Bells does not sustain an entire evening, so the performance opens with three other works: The Gem composed by Smith, and Oldfield’s Summit Day and his hit pop song ‘Moonlight Shadow’. Of these, the elegiac Summit Day is by far the best offering. It’s accompanied by the visual distraction of Jens Beyrich’s constantly changing sphere, which while pleasant enough, did conjure up the impression of a sophisticated screen saver. It did pave the way for the stunning composite time lapse images of the sun taken over the period of a year which played in the background for the second half, however.

Back to Tubular Bells, though, which deserves much better. Starved of live performance though we have all been until recently, it’s perhaps a work that is best enjoyed as originally intended, in the privacy of one’s own home with no other embellishments. It would certainly sound better.

Tubular Bells Live is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London to August 15, 2021. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk for tickets.