‘Keeps tradition alive but also innovates’: CIRCUS SALLAI – Touring

In Circus, Opinion, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Katharine KavanaghLeave a Comment

Touring – reviewed at West Park, Goole

Nestled beneath the trees of West Park sits the red and white tent of newly-formed Circus Sallai (pronounced ‘shall I’). The posters promise a modern twist on traditional circus and their branding taps into the recent phenomenon of The Greatest Showman.

Entering the canopy, a glowing chandelier casts light on the confectionary stands and face-painting stall. Popcorn, candy floss, sweets and an assortment of hot food and hot and cold drinks are available, along with flashing wands and furry worms on sticks. A real family affair, children are serving some of the refreshments.

The show opens to a cover of the song ‘Pure Imagination’, originally from the 1971 film Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The ringmistress Angel Sallai and a young boy make their entrance from the back of the tent, and the Big Top is used effectively as performers appear in seats with snippets of their skills synchronised to the vocals. Entering the ring, the boy peers inside a glowing box, demonstrating that childlike intrigue and wonder that circus can – and I feel should – evoke. I am particularly impressed with this opening, it is tight and well-choreographed and sets the scene for the show ahead.

Hannah Kennedy’s aerial hoop act is beautiful, and all eyes are on the circus school graduate as she spins around the ring with elegance and precision. The action turns to diabolo with Salvatore Sambito’s fast-paced skills and tricks well received. Things really hot up with fire diabolo, the element of danger adding a dramatic twist.

Billy the clown (Billy Herrin) makes his first of many appearances, dressed in patchwork and with a simple painted nose, bowler hat and oversized jacket. As someone who has worked as a clown both with and without nose, I’m always intrigued to see how clown is represented in the modern circus. The minimalist facepaint and lack of floppy shoes and big wigs should keep those with coulrophobia happy here.

Wordplay, sight gags and slapstick are Billy’s main schtick. The magic is intentionally below-par and played for laughs, but at times also surprises. Exposing the method for the floating table feels cheap though, as this is a commercial prop that many magicians perform beautifully, and it can be truly magical if you haven’t seen the secret. The Vanishing Bandana is an off-the-shelf prop too, with a recorded track that can be overused, and relies on the acting skills of the performer. Thankfully, Billy has the comic timing to make this cabaret magic staple work.

A skit popping balloons shows that simple props can work just as well as magical apparatus, and his hat manipulation and juggling is polished and slick. Later, a puppet routine features a minuscule Billy in a carnival booth, dancing to a mash-up of tracks old and new. A running gag with his hat and tie is honed to perfection, simple but effective. Billy is my eldest son’s favourite act; his clown is endearing and cheeky but without being brash or making others look the fool.

Vitzo Nereus with Circus Sallai IMAGE: Dan Wood

Clowning aside, the next act to grace the ring is Stephanie Usher, an aerialist using a giant umbrella swing in enchanting and diverse ways. Gliding around the ring, hanging upside down and even dangling suspended by her head, the act keeps the audience hooked. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the mid-air quick costume change with no cover.

Vitzo Nereus’ balancing act sees glasses stacked and balanced on a rod held in her mouth. The act ends with a balloon popped under a glass, and the tumbling glass caught on the rod. A feat of balance, dexterity and concentration.

Simon Deville with Circus Sallai IMAGE: Dale Smith

Simon Deville’s tightwire act is undoubtedly skilled but, while the tricks he performs are impressive, I would have liked to see more. I also feel the 2m wire could be higher to raise the stakes. He really shines later in the show however, balancing on an ever-growing stack of chairs, with some at different angles.

Lui Nereus’ handstand routine cleverly adopts an artificial assistant and then a dancing member of the audience to form a trio. Balancing on his hands and then on a stack of wooden bricks, this act feels just a touch too long as the children begin to get restless and the trick is similar each time. Nereus is engaging though and wins the crowd over with his clown-like dance moves and feats of balance.

Salvatore Sambito on cloudswing IMAGE: Dale Smith

Salvatore’s cloudswing quickens the pace with some heart-stopping moments up in the rafters. Genuinely one of the slickest aerial acts I’ve seen, with several loud gasps and audience members peeking behind trembling fingers. The lack of a safety net serves as a reminder of the very real risks that circus performers take.

Laser acts are a recent trend in circus, and act one closes with beams of light manipulated to music. Lizzy Labelle trips the light fantastic, and the pumping beat, combined with LEDs and lasers, has even the youngest children transfixed.

The Salvadors rolling globe act IMAGE: Dan Wood

The second half opens with a swing-inspired rolling globe routine from the Salvadors (Thomas and Collette Salsky and their two sons), combining juggling, skipping, balance and seesaw with walking up and down ramps on the large spheres. Like many of the best circus tricks, this is made to look effortless despite the considerable balance and skill. The two young boys dance, somersault, cartwheel and look genuinely pleased to be part of the act, proudly taking their compliments aside the parents. The swing soundtrack has the audience tapping their toes and clicking along too, and whole ensemble oozes class.

Chloe Jayne’s hairhanging act with Circus Sallai IMAGE: Dale Smith

Suspended by her hair, Chloe Jayne whirls around the ring, then ups the game again by adding fire poi and fire breathing. To my knowledge, hair hanging is an act seldom seen in circus these days, especially given the constant wear and tear to the scalp! Exotic and elegant, jaws drop as she twirls like a whirling dervish.

Júlia Szegedi’s aerial pole act is beautiful but feels a little lost amongst the other aerial acts in the show. At this point, younger audience members are losing concentration as bedtime approaches. Nonetheless impressive, but perhaps could be earlier on the bill to be fully appreciated.

The ringmistress takes the spotlight, dressed in elegant deep red and sequins. With clear diction and a strong command of the ring, she steps forward to explain the 250th anniversary of circus, the origins and history of the industry, as the crew rig apparatus behind. I personally find this interesting but it’s a little wordy for my two young boys. Background music or projection of relevant images might lift this sequence.

Thomas and Collette Salsky on the Wheel of Death IMAGE: Dan Wood

The final act is that modern circus classic, the Wheel of Death, from the Salsky grown ups. Fast and impressive, although I can’t remember a circus in the past ten years where I haven’t seen this act. As a finale though, it has the high energy and near-misses that keep the audience gripped. Dancing spotlights and dramatic music add to the overall excitement.

The show closes to ‘From Now On’ from The Greatest Showman as the cast take their bows and dance. This is one of several tracks used from the motion picture, and a suitable showtune for the curtain call.

Credit must go to the technical team too, the song choices were inspired and the sound quality excellent. Even in big-name circuses I have experienced muffled sound and unbalanced levels, but this was crystal clear throughout. Thankfully Sallai don’t resort to pre-recorded applause to suggest bigger reactions either. Special effects and a strong lighting design complement the acts in the ring well. A few minor technical blips and sound cuts are forgivable in a new circus finding their feet.

IMAGE: Dale Smith

At £15-25 per ticket (£6.99 for the very first show, and ticket offers on the website) this is one of the costlier circuses, but it is twice as long as the last show I saw and has high productive values. My children are almost two and five years old, and both sat entranced throughout the show. Flyers for discounted tickets can be taken after the show to help spread the word and increase audience sizes, and I genuinely hope this works as there were many disappointingly empty seats at this performance. Undeterred by this though, the performers put on a stellar show.

Simon Deville with Circus Sallai IMAGE: Dan Wood

It is clear that the team behind Circus Sallai are passionate about circus and its rich history; the show is a testament to their hard work and dedication. The costumes and furnishings are grand and decadent, and the staff friendly and welcoming.

This is a circus that is keen to impress, to keep tradition alive but also to innovate and exceed expectations. And they do, it is a thoroughly enjoyable two hours and I look forward to seeing the show grow and grow. I would recommend catching Circus Sallai where you can, for anyone looking to enter a world of pure circus imagination…

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Katharine Kavanagh on FacebookKatharine Kavanagh on InstagramKatharine Kavanagh on TwitterKatharine Kavanagh on Youtube
Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."
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Katharine Kavanagh on FacebookKatharine Kavanagh on InstagramKatharine Kavanagh on TwitterKatharine Kavanagh on Youtube
Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."