The Flea Pit

Lee Henry undergoes a crisis of confidence in Botanic Gardens

With Ireland’s biggest arts festival in full swing, a select few were permitted access to Belfast’s Botanic Gardens after public hours for the smallest show in the world: Cahoots NI’s The Flea Pit.

Written by Paul Bosco McEneaney - founder member and Artistic Director of Cahoots - the show features the madcap methods of Madame Tip Top, Felix Flip Flop and the fantastic feats of their band of multi-ethnic fleas.

Performed in the Little Pavilion – what looks from the outside like a re-commissioned public toilets re-decorated to look like a 19th century travelling circus – The Flea Pit is a half-hour show catering to an audience of 15.

The audience are welcomed by Felix Flip Flop, played by Hugh Brown, and led inside past a kiosk where everyone collects their own pair of special glasses – joke shop favourites guaranteed to push everyone off their high horses and bring them thundering down to earth.

The show progresses through three separate compartments. The first set-up resembles a mini theatre, with pews and a curtain, which parts quick as a flash to reveal the frankly terrifying Madame Tip Top, played by Christina Nelson.

Madame Tip Top, Felix Flip Flop and their harpist companion Madame Fee Fee then introduce us to an international array of performing fleas: Lady Izabella Jumping Ella, Ivon the Bulgarian Beasty and Mad Rad Rodrigo from Mexico, who ate his way out of a red-hot chilli pepper before branching out into the entertainment industry.

The ensuing act relies on a member of the audience being branded ‘Mr Cynical’, and of course that pleasure is all mine. Izabella, Ivon and Rodrigo then proceed to showcase their talents by rolling a huge ball around a ring, lifting up a half-dollar silver coin – ‘Check it Mr Cynical, see if it’s real!’ – and leaping from swing to swing into a pool of water. The effects are great, and when little tiny Rodrigo manages to lift the coin even the adults are surprised.

But it’s the faces of the kids that make it all worthwhile. They believe everything they see, their eyes wide as saucers, mouths hanging open in disbelief – the picture of innocence. As the audience move into the second compartment, I begin to feel decidedly less cynical about the world.

Next up is The Professor, known in another world as actor Dan Gordon. His job is to teach us about human fleas. His business is on the verge of collapse. He needs human heads to attach to flea bodies in order to keep it going. He already has one in a box. He produces it, talks to it and shuts it away - an inspired piece of theatrical trickery, smoke and mirrors, involving well-known actor and all-round entertainer Geoff Gatt.

A series of scene changes follow and at last we’re presented with The Professor’s dreadful creation, the human flea: Geoff Gatt’s head attached to a teddy bear flea’s body. The kids love it, the adults are divided: pained expressions mixed with mirth. And finally we’re played out by Gatt on the ukulele as we peer through a porthole at another piece of trickery.

Once outside the audience collect their coats. Nobody knows any good therapists, so I head home alone, making a mental note, for the benefit of my own sanity, that I should steer clear of children's theatre for a very, very long time.