Circus Review: Circus 1903, Royal Festival Hall

Circus 1903

Circus 1903 - Credit: Archant

A joyful, magical and breathtaking spectacle which harks back to the golden age of Edwardian circus shows but minus the seedy freak shows and animal exploitation

Circus 1903

Circus 1903 - Credit: Archant

All the joy, magic and breathtaking spectacle of circus is captured in this festive offering, which takes as its theme, the golden age of vast travelling shows which followed the railroads to small towns across America.

As ringmaster Willy Whipsnade points out, this one takes place a stone’s throw from where Philip Astley first sold a ticket to an assembly of acts performing in a circular arena, 250 years ago.

These days the specacle is more sanitised – the gorgeous Edwardian costumes are pristine, and there’s no need for sawdust when your elephants are giant puppets.

But for people of all ages and cultures – and especially wriggly bottomed children – this text-light exciting visual treat that joyfully breaks the fourth (canvas) wall, will keep them on the edge of their seats.

Circus 1903

Circus 1903 - Credit: Archant

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Those old circus shows went up and down in one day, and the lightest of narratives sees the showmen and women hammering the pegs and preparing their acts.

I particularly liked the end of act one, when the work clothes transform into spangles and sequins, and the big top is finally hoisted high.

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There’s barely a whiff of contemporary circus; most of these skills honed with years of practice are the same as those enjoyed by the turn of the century crowds; Juggling (thrilling) a contortionist (awe-inspiring) vertiginous tumblers on a teeterboard, and a breath-catching knife-throwing act (blindfold anyone?)

The gorgeous ‘Lucky Moon’ twirling on her aerial hoop, a trio cycling across a tightrope while doing a headstand, and a chap balancing on a wobbling tower of metal cylinders all had the wow factor.

There are mercifully no clowns, Whipsnade makes an affable host, linking the scenes with lightening fast patter, and genuinely funny comic interludes based around him doing close up magic with young audience members.

There’s a nod to the seamier side of those yesteryear circuses, with a skit around a freak sideshow with inept bearded ladies, strongmen and snake charmers.

And when the elephant and baby puppets make their stunning entrance, they are ‘trained’ to stand on tubs.

Thus the director/producers pull off the magic trick of making you nostalgic for something you are kind of glad has changed.


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