Royal Festival Hall, London – until 5 January 2020
In a busy season of pantomimes and children’s shows, we rolled up to London to review a vintage take on circus, featuring performers from all over the world.
The Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre has been home to several alternative Christmas shows in recent years, with this reviewer seeing Slava’s Snowshow twice at the venue. The snow is brushed aside now though, to make way for Circus 1903 from Fiery Angel Entertainment.
As a magician myself, I was especially excited to see US sleight of hand artist David Williamson as Willy Whipsnade the Ringmaster.
The show is peppered with magical moments, often with young assistants from the audience, and this is a masterclass in how to treat a child volunteer. Williamson is effortlessly charming, and gracious in letting the children take the credit and applause. A particularly tender moment sees a four-year-old boy empowered by being told that he is the reason that several thousand people were made to feel happy, not because of the trick but because of him. The look on his face was pure joy, and I’m sure this will be a memory to treasure.
Williamson dazzles with cards, coins, rings, shoes, eggs and – perhaps his signature routine – a delightfully wild and unpredictable raccoon. I’ve seen a very young Williamson present this act on video, but it is honed to precision and a treat to witness in the flesh… or fur.
He interacts with the audience pre-show too, with close-up magic and general banter. There are far too many people to get around individually of course, and it’s clear every child wants one of his giveaway smackeroo dollars.
Conspicuous by their absence, there are no clown characters or slapstick in this circus. Instead, it is the ringmaster who interjects with routines and skits. Perhaps this is a response to apparent clown-phobia, or simply to allow more time for Williamson to shine, but there’s not a lick of greasepaint nor a scarlet nose in sight.
The show is packed with humour though, and some of the funniest moments come from clownish sight gags, prop comedy, quips and jokes.
Clowns aside, there is plenty of circus tradition on offer. Williamson sets the scene of a 1903 circus, before ‘The Roustabouts’ enter in a tightly choreographed routine, titled ‘Building the Canvas City’. To a rousing score by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the circus crew hammer to the beat before the action seamlessly transitions to a teeterboard act by The Daring Desafios from Brazil.
This is the first time I’ve seen such an act, and the heights scaled are truly impressive, with tricks, tumbles and turns mid-air. João Siqueira, Luan Vieira and Leonardo Louzanda – two of the three appearing in last year’s act, billed then as ‘The Flying Finns’ (the act also appeared with a third variation of the line-up earlier during this tour – Ed.) – have honed a fun and fast-paced act that, according to the programme, they have been working on since they were twelve-years-old. The dedication and commitment to their craft shows.
‘The Sensational Sozonov’ (Russian-born Mikhail Sozonov and Ievgeniia Fetkulova) display their exploits of equilibrium next, with a rolla-bolla act that elicits gasps from a gripped audience. The routine climaxes with a full 360-degree rotation on a wobbling tower, as a drumroll underscores the action and sets hearts racing. The applause and adoration that follows is very real.
A sideshow act with plenty of intentionally lame gags builds to the serpentine sinuousness of ‘The Elastic Dislocanionist’. Ethiopian contornionist Senayet Asefa Amare manipulates her body in incredible ways, with the audience around me peering through their fingers. Enchanting, beautiful and, at points, unnerving… I was left wondering where her internal organs go.
‘Mademoiselle Natalia’ (Natalia Leontieva, from Russia) spins hoops on her arms and legs, with a few drops reminding the audience just how difficult and precise this act is. As a finale, one ring after another is thrown at her wriggling body as she becomes a whirling dervish of entertainment.
Aerial duo ‘The Flying Fredonis’ scale dizzying heights in a romantic silk routine that ends in a loving embrace. The chemistry between Ukrainian Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych feels genuine, and the act is truly beautiful. I do feel it would work better in the round though, to draw the audience in further.
The show is billed as The Greatest Showman meets War Horse, and features African elephants designed and built by puppeteers who worked on the wartime National Theatre hit. The animals close the first act, first with a backstage training routine that shows the elephants roaming free, well cared for and loved by the crew. Whether this was the reality in 1903 is uncertain.
The mini mastodon, Peanuts, is adorable and delights the audience with his cheeky antics. The animals make several appearances throughout the show, before returning in the finale (complete with ornate headdresses) to thunderous applause.
Expertly manipulated, the elephants are incredibly believable as walking, living, trumpeting pachyderms. I have recently seen footage of holographic elephants in the ring at Circus Roncalli, but these puppets felt more tangible as well as addressing the ethical issue of how to incorporate wild animals.
Grand Glorious Parade
Act Two opens with the company parading through the auditorium waving flags, before ‘The Remarkable Risleys’ demonstrate their Icarian acrobatics. The Mongolian performers – Ganbayar Munkhbhat and Andryei Batbold – toss and turn each other in the air with dexterous foot juggling that builds and builds.
A hand balancing act by ‘The Great Rokardy’ sees more and more height added as Rokardy Rodriguez stands on his palms atop a teetering tower. Rodriguez knows how to milk the drama here, and the audience are encouraged to chant for more.
Williamson introduces a Bunco Booth game of chance with a father and daughter given an apparently free choice to win a stuffed elephant. Of course, like many carnival games, not all is as it seems, and there are many unexpected twists along the way. A very clever and well thought out routine, ending in a remarkable prediction that was right all along. And of course, the little girl does get the prize at the end!
Juggling juggernaut ‘The Great Gaston’ from Paris (François Borie) throws clubs and hats at breath-taking speeds, in an act full of poise and polish. Towards the end, there are a few drops but I’m almost certain these are choreographed to build the support of the audience for when he finally achieves perfection.
Next up is the raccoon routine with the Ringmaster, billed as ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ and using four children from the audience. This is hilarious and goes to show just how much can be achieved with very little. A fur-coated slinky, a deck of cards or two and some novelty flags make for ten minutes of side-splitting entertainment – with the children getting some of the biggest laughs. Williamson does well to cope to with some children carried away, kicking the raccoon all around the stage and revelling in the excitement.
Done to Death
The Grand Finale features ‘The Magnificent Marvellos’ on ‘A Circular Cyclone’, more commonly known as The Wheel of Death. I have commented in previous reviews about just how many times I have seen this act now, complete with the usual near-trips and falls. However, it is very well done here – fast and dramatic, and I’m aware that a typical theatregoing audience (rather than circus fans) may have never seen it. The reactions speak for themselves, and the crowds are stunned by the skill of Colombian based Carlos Mayorga Macias and Jerson Alexander Valencia Garcia. Both performers skip atop the wheel, and jump and forward-roll without a safety net or harness in sight. A fitting finale to a packed production.
As the full company arrive for bows, the Ringmaster makes a point of thanking not just the performers but also the backstage crew, technicians and stage managers. He explains just how much work and training goes into the circus, and genuinely conveys his thanks to the audience for supporting the show.
Curtains Don’t Match the Drapes
I was acutely aware that I was sat in a South Bank theatre looking at a facade of a circus, rather than being fully immersed in actual traditional circus. It may not be feasible to erect a big top near the Thames, but perhaps the space could be transformed to enhance the atmosphere. I’m no designer, but I wonder if drapes matching the stage colours could be hung from the rafters, banners cascading down from the royal boxes, just something to theme the auditorium and help the audience suspend their disbelief. The distracting glow from smartphones didn’t help either, although front of house staff are usually quick to step in and remind people not to film (also very different to big top circus! – Ed.).
Just the Ticket?
At £150 each for top price seats, the production commands a high price for a level of talent that is undeniably high, but that I have seen matched (or in some cases exceeded) in £7-a-seat touring circus. Whilst you may struggle in London to see any circus for that price, Zippos in Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park, for example, is a mere fraction of the price in comparison. Other companies tour the south too and are significantly cheaper. Circus need not be expensive.
Cheapest tickets here are £24 but for a back row balcony view and, as the show is not in the round, I feel this would be too far from the action to feel engaged. That said, there are various ticket offers around and so it pays to compare prices before booking.
What the premium price tag does afford though, is high production values: a larger than usual cast, a full orchestral score (albeit recorded) and a sumptuous and well crafted design that is evocative of the golden era of circus.
Standout moments for me come from Williamson’s Ringmaster, a smart casting choice and the glue that holds the show together. Asefa’s contortion act is also a highlight, and I genuinely saw things that I thought weren’t physically possible. The whole cast and crew work well as an ensemble unit, and the show is a well-oiled circus machine.
Is the price point justified? This is a well polished, artistically sound and slick production that I thoroughly enjoyed but, again, it lacks the charm and authenticity of a tented touring circus. I cannot fault the hardworking cast and crew though, and there are many highlights for an audience that whooped and cheered throughout. Variety fans can see circus for a lot less however, if perhaps without the polish and sparkle of a large London production.
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