At the beginning of Circus 1903, ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson when he’s off duty) addresses sceptics and lukewarm fans: ‘with enough hot air, you can turn anything into anything else!’.
You might have seen a circus like this one before. The year is 1903 and we’re invited to the golden age of the art form. Acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, knife-throwers and yes, elephants (life-size puppets designed by the team behind War Horse), are all part of the show – but this is an evening of wonder that could only exist in 2018.
Whipsnade keeps the audience involved like any good pantomimic host. ‘You are the engine that drives this machine tonight’, he explains. Knowing jokes and affectionate insults makes everyone feel comfortable before the acts of magic and wonder begin.
Vignettes prove the gravity-defying talent of the young performers – but not everything is perfect, and the shakes and doubts are sometimes tangible. If anything, this makes Circus 1903 more gripping as the possibility of failure makes every success even more satisfying.
And there are a lot of successes. The Flying Finns, a trio of teeterboard artists, propel and somersault each other to astonishing heights, Los Lopez ride bicycles on a high-wire line and Lucky Moon swings from a Lyra with show-stopping emotion. But then someone falls from a trapeze and your heart feels ever more devoted.
The magic of this specific circus lies in its unplaceable identity: its design, performers and music belong to an era of tradition, but quips on Bitcoin and Lady Gaga as well as riffs on living costs in London and a ‘gender-fluid bearded person’ are fresh. This circus could have risked a lot more in swapping gender roles, shaking up the narratives or adopting a subversive stylistic design, but for the most part, the marriage between old and new finds a perfect balance.
The jokes and jaw-dropping acrobatics do more than enough to impress and entertain adults, but kids are completely catered for as well. The tour-de-force of Circus 1903 lies in its ability to make everyone believe in magic, as the tricks grow in strength throughout the night. What begins as a number of recognisable interludes turns into an act that the children onstage will, hopefully, look back on fondly for the rest of their lives.
Willy Whipsnade completes his duties as maestro of everything marvellous as he talks through the illusions everyone witnessed with the small key player who helped it happen. It looks intimate. ‘You and your three friends just made hundreds of people very happy’, he tells the last boy to leave the stage. ‘Many many magical and wonderful things are going to happen in your life. Because life is a circus’.
|What||Back for 2019: Circus 1903 review, Southbank Centre|
|Where||Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX | MAP|
19 Dec 19 – 05 Jan 20, Times vary
|Website||Click here to book now|