Trelai Park, Cardiff – until 25 July 2017
A big red, white ‘n’ blue tent sits in the corner of the park, surrounded by big American style trucks to match, all emblazoned with circus imagery for Uncle Sam’s Great American Circus. Don’t expect to see any real Americans, but do prepare yourself for a polished representation of what popular imagination says a circus should be. A ringmaster in smart red tailcoat with gold brocade; shiny leotards and rhinestoned costumes; a clown with full make-up and red nose, who works alongside his own mini-me youngster and a gorgeously tailored traditional white-face clown.
Tall ring doors of red velvet emphasise the height of the tent and hint at the large stunt acts that will follow, and several separate concession stands and unobtrusive vendors of flash toys complete the scene inside the tent’s colour scheme of silver and star-spangled banner. A literal band-wagon next to the ring doors is home to a live duo of musicians on synthesiser keys and drum-kit, who play classic American rock’n’roll numbers and late 20th Century pop, timing reactively to the circus artists in a way that recorded soundtracks cannot.
In his booming announcer’s voice, Max Salthouse introduces the first act as juggler Tony Garcia, who enters between tubs of flame to mount a neon lit podium, all rock hands, leather trenchcoat, mesh and buckles. When his juggling balls are first propelled down towards the floor instead of up into the air we enjoy the tease, and he builds his accomplished act up to seven balls bounced or tossed precisely in front of him on the platform.
What I think is introduced as Cyr Wheel Warriors actually turns out to be Zulu Warriors, a troupe of acrobats that play up to generalised Western tropes of Africana in their animal-skin styled costumes, bounding into towers and poses which they satisfyingly hold long enough for us to get pictures and to appreciate their strength and skill. The ‘African Acrobats’ genre of circus act is a commonly seen one in shows all over Europe and is one I have felt increasingly uncomfortable watching. Recently though, at the Circus And Space conference, a fascinating presentation from Jessica Kendall shed light on the more complex politics, economics and business demands behind these routines, which provide more work for acrobats when they are willing to conform to cultural stereotypes.
Our first visit from talky clown Tony Tonito (aka Tony Papadopaulo) reveals a Spanish accent behind the conventionally US style make-up, and he tells us how a clown must be a master of many talents – balance, music, tumbling, comedy… He is joined by two real-life sons, Yeray and Bryan, in their complimentary clown roles, and white-face Yeray sets up a rivalry between the old august clown and his young doppelgänger for some basic bottle balancing, which is enlivened by hearty flourishes from the drummer. Despite Tony’s philosophical claims, it’s not until we hear the two eldest Tonitos on saxophone later that we’re able to recognise particular skill, delivered again later with Tony’s trampoline act in the second half of the show.
Another family act on the show are the award-winning Dias clan, although at first we are only introduced to sisters Angela and Eveline, who perform a combination of foot-balance, balance-ladder and contortion. The bright lighting wash reduces the dramatic effect of the girls’ skills, but does allow us to simultaneously see the work that goes in from base performer Angela, holding up her sister atop a tall free-standing ladder with just her feet, and appreciate Eveline’s more showy poses at the top.
Later on, the Dias brothers Irmãos and Ruben perform a Risley act with charm and showmanship as well as skills. I find myself inadvertently squealing as Irmãos tosses his brother from the platform of his feet into a somersault that lands Ruben back on his brother’s soles but, this time, with his shoulders, face down. Both the boys are still teenagers but, as we’re introduced to Diaz Juniors, two even smaller boys are brought out to perform, under watchful eye of father Angelo. As little Cristiano prepares for a triple somersault, his excitement radiates off him and, when things don’t go according to plan, he is a staunch professional trooper for such a young child (apparently aged 6 at last year’s International Festival in Budapest).
A final trick from the two elder brothers also comes off a little oddly first time round, and it’s hard to guess whether the stakes were raised through theatre or genuine mishap. Perhaps if I hadn’t already seen the ‘third time lucky’ routine in Ronaldo Estafans superb juggling earlier I wouldn’t question it so much.
Ronaldo also performs with the current Thunderball Riders line-up , closing the show with a roaring Globe of Death act. The look of glee on my petrol-head partner’s face is priceless as the three motorbikes whiz around the inside of the metal sphere just meters away from our seats.
A feisty yet smiling roller-skating act from Jessica Lester and Sam Pellegrom features ice-skater style costumes, white, glittery, and showing skin. Their salute choreography feels rather forced, but they seem totally at ease in their partnership with each other as they spin from one another’s necks on the small round podium.
Filler slots include dancing Minions, a birthday shout-out and a cuddly toy raffle, and the first half is finished with a Wheel of Death from the Bulgarian Kovachev Brothers (Nikolai and George), angled to revolve from the ring curtain to the centre of the ring curb. From where I’m sitting, the metal cages swoop directly towards me, which is my favourite way to view this type of act. There’s a blindfold, there’s a skipping rope, there’s a somersault on the OUTSIDE of the moving wheel… there is a lot of knee-grabbing as I tense in the seat next to my partner!
During the interval it’s always reassuring to note the toilets are well-stocked with paper rolls, and the two sink heights are a nice touch (although I will admit I forgot to check for a wheelchair accessible option).
In the second half, a spitting – and splitting – camel gives me some real belly laughs as he blithely disobeys Tony Tonito’s instructions, even refusing to stay in one piece. Closing with a traditional parade of flags is lovely, and the smell of grass underfoot is even supplemented by a token scattering of sawdust beneath the red and white starburst ring mat. My taste is generally for something with a bit more warmth and connection, but my boyfriend thoroughly enjoys the strictly presentational approach and classic feel. Uncle Sam’s have a strong show that brings European circus traditions together under an American canvas and, as they are one of the harder companies to track online, I was pleased to see their poster in time to catch them in my home-town.