Webbs Garden Centre, Hagley
The half-term holidays signal the return of John Lawson’s Circus to the West Hagley garden centre and, this year, I’m off work so I get to visit. I am expecting a show for children with the hour-long running time – to fit in three shows a day – and am pleased to discover that this doesn’t mean a half-hearted entertainment as it sometimes can.
The tent is bright and clean , with a purple design over the white canvas that matches the purple uniform of the Webbs staff member checking tickets on the way in. Inside, the tent is a crisp primary blue with geometric red and yellow patterns inside the ring. We’re welcomed into the tent by veteran clown Bumble in baggy red tartan, and ringmaster Chris Barltop in a smarter red tailcoat, finished with a top hat and traditional whistle. Young clown Piccolo is demonstrating the spinning plates for sale, and other company members in black military jackets call, ‘Flashing lights! Wiggly worms!‘
There’s a jovial atmosphere, and some high street Halloween decorations strung over the two king poles and the candyfloss and popcorn concession in entrance remind us that this is a themed event. As I look around the full tent while The Monster Mash plays over the PA system, I find myself thinking – ‘So far, so promising.’
Barltrop is a smooth and eloquent host, and I enjoy the traditional touch of his perpetual presence in the ring, which I rarely see these days. His script is well written and clearly delivered, giving an air of class to the proceedings. First we are introduced to our roles – getting our clapping muscles going – and to Bumble and Piccolo as welcome friends. Both wear modern minimal make-up, and wide-eyed daydreamer Piccolo in his oversized polka dot tailcoat and backwards baseball cap communicates wonderfully through silent body language.
The first act is Jane Russell on an ‘aerial ladder’ triangular frame, dressed in Halloween black and purple. It’s not the strongest of opening acts, with poses only held briefly and transitions lacking in some grace, but it mesmerised young faces around me watching live aerial performance for the first time. Later on she appears again for an act of foot juggling, charmingly explained by Barltrop. Props she tosses between her feet include neon footballs, a large candy-coloured octagon, a silver cylinder, a cube, and a flaming pole. She is most impressive when manoevering the objects between legs and hands with quicksilver coordination
Next is the ‘glittering chrome and sparkling neon‘ of Alexander, looking like someone out of a cool teen vampire movie in his long leather trenchcoat, quickly manipulating a sphere of hula-hoops, and then a large cube frame, corners glinting as it spins on one point.
A short and sweet clown skit on teeth brushing and a Big Smile allows for the Ukrainian duo to set their role bola act, which showcases a fast and varied selection of tricks including Sergei climbing to stand on the top of a hand balance ladder, a balance on top of a revolving basketball, and a 5-rola stack – with a smart comic nod to us beforehand to acknowledge how wobbly the tower is!
As the Halloween show is separate from the circus’ main season, the artists names are not included on the company website and, through fear of misspelling what I heard over the announcement mic, I’m not able to fully credit the performers, which makes me sad. I believe this act was called Due Valkief? Or Baltiev? Something like that, but no luck with a google search.
Later on, the female assistant returns with her own diva sword balancing act, nicely dressed with Italian opera, wine glasses and grapes, and proceeds to climb over a ladder whilst balancing a three prong candlestick on the end of a sword held in her mouth!
There is a Hungarian aerialist whose name, I think, is Adina, who swoops calmly over our heads in a flame patterned costume, smiling blissfully through muscle shaking rolls and twists on the aerial straps, and later appearing in a spiderweb patterned body stocking to perform on the aerial rope, something snakelike in the way she connects to her equipment.
The penultimate act is a jolly clown act that begins as hide-the-lady with balloons and buckets, and ends as a ‘which water is wettest’ slosh act. I find myself laughing and squealing as delightedly as the children around me as the pair run through the seats with handfuls of foam, but never get more than a couple of drops on me.
This show fits a great deal into its allotted hour and, though the acts may not be at the heights of technical expertise, they are well presented for young audiences as a fun and good spirited introduction to circus. And performing three times daily is, in itself, another type of technical ability!