Director: Neil Dorward
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
An hour into Circus 1903 there’s an interval. It barely feels as though you’ve been in your seat for five minutes when the lights go up. Everyone is smiling.
They’re smiling because this American contemporary circus company have brilliantly brought back some of the old-school magic that early-twentieth-century audiences would have been wowed by – the kind that comes from watching genuine human endeavour – the product of many hours of effort and determination. Circus 1903 is not about technical wizardry or levered in storyline, just a wonderfully heart-warming, fun and family-friendly night out.
That’s not to say that the show doesn’t look good. It’s all put together on a grand scale. Sets (Todd Edward Ivins) have a lovely side-show feel and are beautifully engineered to slide in and out effortlessly, costumes (Angela Aaron) are suitably Edwardian and add a splash of colour. Lighting design (Paul Smith) helps to create some lovely ensemble scenes and solo performers are picked out with sharp spotlights.
It’s all held together by Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, played by the charming David Williamson. His magic tricks are great, but are nothing compared to his ability to play the audience. With a huge stage presence, he seamlessly moves the show on from one act to another, while you’re watching him, bulky equipment and set seems to appear and disappear out of thin air. Best of all, his interaction with the children he plucks from the audience to assist with the show is perfectly pitched – carefully selecting them for a great balance of cuteness and crazy, they become a totally integral and enjoyable part of the show.
The acts are pretty much what you might expect – aerial artists, tumblers, a contortionist, a juggler – all international acts at the absolute top of their game. There’s no building up to a big finish either, from the minute the first act explodes on to the stage (accompanied by a jaw-dropping ensemble opener of dancing and stirring music), The Daring Desafios (Brazilians Joao Siqueira, Luan De Souza Viera and Leonardo Louzada) immediately provoke gasps from the audience as they catapult one another to unbelievable heights from a teeterboard (that’s a big see-saw to you and me). They set both the amazement and energy levels for what’s to come.
The pace is beautifully punctuated with quieter, but equally breath-taking acts. The Flying Fredonis (Ukrainian aerial artists Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych) seem to defy gravity and The Elastic Dislocationist (Ethiopian contortionist Senayet Asefa Amare) creates a hypnotic dance as she shows off her remarkable physical skill. The audience holds its collective breath as Cuban acrobat Rokardy Rodriguez (The Great Rokardy) balances on his hands on a horribly wobbly framework that almost reaches the top of the Lowry stage, and whoops with delight as The Great Gaston (French Juggler Francois Borie spins clubs so fast they‘re just a blur.
There’s a magical moment (and this would be a spoiler if it wasn’t so prominent in the company’s publicity material) when we’re reminded of the majesty of circus animals. While animal welfare has righting put a stop to performing elephants, Circus 1903 re-creates the wonder with an enormous puppet, a stunning creation from Significant Object, the studio behind War Horse. The team of puppeteers who make Queenie the African elephant come alive have all worked with War Horse’s Handspring Puppet Company. With a swing of her trunk and a twitch of her ears she’s about as convincing as a puppet could ever be.
London gets this next (it’s rather surprising that it isn’t touring more widely) – it’s pretty unmissable. When the circus rolls into town, make sure you go.
Runs until 24 November 2019 | Image: Contributed