Director: Neil Dorward
As the bad news stories from theatres roll in, the only thing to do is escape to the circus, Circus 1903 returns to the Southbank Centre for the third consecutive year to brighten an increasingly gloomy pre-Christmas period. Retelling the story of an early twentieth-century American big top pitching up in town, the first half physically prepares the set-up ready for a full performance after the interval.
Its stars are a large African elephant called Queenie and her calf, extraordinary life-sized puppets designed by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller constructed from hessian panels over a metal frame, which make a scene-stealing appearance in the First Act. Queenie is operated by three performers from inside the creature’s body while a fourth manages the trunk. The adorable, but far cheekier, baby is a single costume, cantering around the stage, refusing to do tricks and wining the hearts of the audience.
Also in the first section, there are some amazing displays of acrobatic skill with The Daring Desafios (Leonardo Louzada, Joao Siqueira, Luan de Souza Vieira and Vinicius Vascolncelos) whose astounding mid-air tumbles and speedy interchanges on a teeterboard (a see saw) are an energetic opening to the show. The Flying Fedonis (Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych) prove equally gravity-defying in a series of stunts suspended in a cradle – a little romantic perhaps for the family audience and over so quickly that each feat of daring barley has time to register, but impressive, nonetheless. As is Mikhail Sozonov precariously teetering on piles of rounded shapes and planks in a bold balancing act.
After the interval, scenic designer Todd Edwards Ivins and lighting designer Paul Smith take us into the red and blue tones of the main circus tent where further gymnastic displays await. Les Incredibles (Olavo Rocha Muniz and Denise Torres de Souza) miss a couple of tricks as de Souza takes all the flight risks but pull off an impressive blindfold finale, while the show finishes with a figure-of-eight-shaped device that spins violently on a central axis around which the performers clamber at considerable speed with no safety net.
Equally remarkable are the variety acts peppered throughout the show, especially juggler Roberto Carlos as The Great Gaston, whose lighting speed with multiple clubs morphs into a hugely entertaining segment with projectile ping pong balls juggled between hands and mouth in a rarely seen trick. Florian Blümmel’s jaunty cycling stunts, described as ‘bicycle ballet’, use all parts of the machine, culminating in an impressive one-wheeled pirouette. These acts may not have the danger of some of their counterparts, but their skill is just as memorable.
But what is a circus without some clowns? Sufferers of coulrophobia need not fear because Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) lets the audience fill in, leading some child-participation segments that, inevitably, don’t quite go to plan. Williamson is occasionally a little gruff and the children, all under 10, are too young to register the sarcasm, but it creates some engagement for families other than clapping along.
There are listed acts that you may not see – no contortionist for example at this performance – and it is a shame not to see something like this in the round rather than in the flatter perspective of the Royal Festival Hall auditorium. However, there is certainly plenty of spectacle in Circus 1903 that sustains a 2 hour and 20-minute running time, and enough variety for director Neil Dorward to maintain a decent pace. So run away to the circus while you still can.
Runs until 2 January 2022