Welcome to Paradise Circus 2024

Paradise Circus co-writer and performer Rachel Harvey sat on a prop toilet on stage. She's wearing black trousers, grey top, with a shocked expression

Rachel starts to believe miracles are possible after a near-religious experience in an Aldi car park. Life’s no longer beige for a while as she starts to become the woman she’s always wanted to be. But soon she’s plunged into a world that threatens to drown who she truly is. 

Paradise Circus, written by Angela Neenan (who also directs) and Rachel Harvey (who also performs), is here on 21 September. It was born out of a particularly long and drunken evening when they found themselves poring over a book from Angela’s days as a documentary maker called Dictators’ Homes*.

We chatted to Angela about the play, and how the character of Rachel represents the millions of women worldwide who deal with coercion and control in everyday life.

Can you tell me more about Paradise Circus? 

It’s a one-woman show which takes us into the world of Rachel. She’s a very ordinary middle-aged woman from Birmingham who falls in love with a mysterious man with a shady past and a penchant for pancakes. Her situation quickly spirals into something much darker than anything she could have imagined. We use humour and music to help tell her story in all its tragic and ridiculous glory.

The book Dictators’ Homes fascinated us. It’s a head-on collision between old-fashioned domesticity and tyrannical madness, starring some of the most infamous and brutal players on the world stage. It got us imagining a scenario in which a very ordinary woman finds herself in a relationship with a dictator, and how this love affair would play out in a Midlands suburb.

As we developed the story, we were increasingly led by the fact that the exercise of sexual power by men over women is not only the preserve of tyrannical world leaders. It is depressingly common at all levels of society. We wanted the character of Rachel to be instantly recognizable – “one of us”.

According to a Norfolk County Council report, there were 13,764 recorded domestic abuse crimes in the county from April 2022 to March 2023. This was a 9% decrease on the previous year but a 20% increase on 2019/20. In your publicity material you quote Professor Jane Monkton-Smith who says more than 10 women die every week in the UK because of a violent and / or a controlling partner – either at the hands of their abuser or as the result of suicide driven by fear and despair?

It’s a topic which is very close to both our hearts, and one which sadly continues to feel urgent and timely. So many women and girls lose their lives every year at the hands of violent and abusive men.

We think part of the solution lies in helping women recognise the beginnings of this kind of abuse. When we were developing the character of Rachel, we hoped she would be very relatable to many women, who might easily identify with the way she thinks and feels. The kind of humour we use in the play feels like a brilliant tool. After all, if you can get an audience to laugh then you have their hearts as well as their heads.

Paradise Circus co-writer and director Angela Neenan kneeling on the stage with a script in hand, shrouded by darkness. Sat on a prop toilet in front of her is co-writer and performer Rachel Harvey

How did you approach balancing the absurdity and the tragedy? 

Balancing comedy and tragedy is what our writing is all about. The older we get, the more we recognise that life is one big circus. Everything, no matter how difficult, contains an element of the ridiculous. That said, we were very careful to make sure that the seriousness of the play’s main theme remained clear.

What makes the character of Rachel so lovable is the fact that although there are huge elements of her being ridiculous and crazy, she’s essentially a sympathetic character enmeshed in an awful situation. The tragedy becomes more poignant as her situation spirals downwards, leading to her final act of heroism.

What can audiences expect and what do you want them to take away from Paradise Circus? 

First and foremost, we hope audiences come away feeling thoroughly entertained by a great story, compellingly told. Going by previous audience feedback, they can expect to laugh – a lot – and cry.

How did you and Rachel find making the show together? 

We love working together. We are great friends as well as writing partners, with Brummie heritage as well as many shared life experiences. Paradise Circus was our first play written and produced together. We have since written and performed two more.

Our creative process involves a great deal of talking and thinking at the start. That’s how we edge ourselves closer to a central concept and narrative.

With Paradise Circus, one of our first decisions was to create the character of Rachel. Once we had that, we let her lead the narrative through a mixture of sketched out scenarios and improvisation. I think that helped make Rachel’s voice feel spontaneous and authentic. We are very lucky to have such a close working relationship.

Paradise Circus is at The Garage at 7.30pm on 21 September. Tickets are on sale now. Find out more about the play on Facebook and Instagram.

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*In case you’re interested, the only reliably common feature of dictators’ homes – from Saddam Hussain’s to Idi Amin’s – is gold taps.

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