Director: Neil Dorward
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
2018 has been a vintage year for circus in London. January was a little less cold with the sultry Becoming Shadesat the Vault Festival, while summer arrived early when Circus Abyssinia came to town in April. And favourites like the high adrenaline Cirque Berserk and the naughty Briefs still pull in the crowds. To finish the year, Circus 1903is perhaps the most spectacular of them all.
But if the competition has been fierce this year, it’s nothing like 1903 when Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth returned to America to find that other circuses had been established during their five-year European tour. Travelling across The States on special trains carrying hundreds of workers, performers and animals, circuses were the pinnacle of entertainment in the early 20thCentury. Circus 1903attempts to restore the excitement and the fearlessness of this period, and it’s largely successful.
The Royal Festival Hall may not be the first venue that springs to mind when it comes to the circus, but the acts seem quite at home here. The stage is wide enough for an exciting tightrope walking routine, by Los Lopez, a family from Mexico, who ride along the high wire on unicycles and bikes. The stage is also high enough for an exquisite aerial display by Aleksandra Kiedrowicz, who won Poland’s Got Talent. She also gets knives thrown at her in a hair-raising routine by Deadly Games, aka Alfredo Silva. Other acts feel just a comfortable playing in the space, and the Royal Festival Hall lends an extra level of theatricality that is hard to come by in a tent.
The first half of the show is set ‘backstage’, almost as if the acts are rehearsing for later, beginning with the riotous acrobatics of The Flying Finns from Brazil. They tumble and spin as the rest of the performers put out their washing or deal with erecting the tent. In quieter moments we have a contortionist and The Cycling Cyclone who does odd tricks on a bicycle. In the second half, we see the circus from inside, bright lights and striped awnings. Here, highlights include juggler extraordinaire The Great Gaston and Russian Cradle experts Les Incredibles.
But it’s the puppet elephants we’ve all come too see. Life-sized and majestic, the mother and calf designed by Significant Object almost steal the show, if it wasn’t for the undertow of collective guilt. Here the puppets are gently cajoled into performing their tricks, but history was probably less gentle and seeing them on stage is definitely a bittersweet experience.
Strangely, for all the talent of this circus it is the humour and the low-level tricks of Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade that receives the biggest applause. As Whipsnade, David Williamson excels, and his routine, The Training of Wild Animals, is inspired, especially as the wild animals he hopes to train are children from the audience. His gruff and slightly dismissive persona delighted the kids on press night, and who were, incidentally, very hard to train!
Circus 1903really is fun for all the family, but with some seats in the front stalls costing £99.50 each, it may be best to search out a deal, before you decide to bring all the family. Christmas theatre tends to revolve around pantomimes and so this circus is a real tonic. Thrilling and, when the knives are in the air, occasionally frenzied, Circus 1903provides some good old-fashioned fun.
Runs until 5 January 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan