The Australian producers of the wildly successful The Illusionists, an historically styled magic show that took Broadway and the West End by storm, have turned their hand to another old world form of entertainment in their latest production, the travelling circus.
As the programme tells us, at the turn of the 20th Century in America, dozens of circuses were travelling the length and breadth of the country by train and by wagon, popping up tents in the railyards of each town along the way. As our Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) notes, the day the circus came to town would become an impromptu public holiday, as the residents of the entertainment-starved burgs would be treated to feats of wonder and sights and creatures never before seen in their small communities.
This sets the scene for the good old-fashioned circus acts that follow and helps to explain away the modest scale and spectacle of the acts in Circus 1903 when presenting to audiences familiar with Cirque du Soleil and its slick, modernistic approach under an enormous tent, or ‘grand chapiteau’ as its known. It is a charming idea to hark back to the history of the travelling circus and one that is greatly enhanced by Angela Aaron’s stunning period costumes and Todd Edward Ivins’ simple, yet accurate set designs.
Director Neil Dorward (and Co-Creative Producer with Simon Painter) has attempted to paint a picture of what ‘Circus Day’ was like back in 1903. Populating his cast with ‘roustabouts’ who push and pull the ropes and canvases, crash mats and acrobatic apparatuses in a way that adds to the overall style of the show and allows a transition through acts that creates one fluid story of the circus at work.
The acts are wide and varied, from smaller stunts, such as the classic ‘rola bola’ balance board act (Mikhail Sozonov), cycling tricks (Florian Blümmel) and a contortionist (Senayet Assefa Amara), to bigger spectacles such as tight-rope walking (Los Lopez), aerial work (Elena Gatilova) and somersaults of every kind. Of course these bigger acts have their risks and it wouldn’t be exciting if they weren’t prone to something going wrong, it’s just how those issues are handled that makes the difference. When teeterboard trio The Flying Fins (Artur Ivankovich, AJ Saltalamacchia and Petter Linsky) had obvious issues on the night, it felt awkward and clearly as though the audience had missed something big due to the way they dealt with their misstep. Whereas when the duo Fratelli Rossi (Alejandro and Ricardo), a foot juggling act, went awry and one of the brothers looked somewhat injured, they drew strength from the crowd’s reactions and went on to complete their routine in a way that felt more satisfying on the whole and wowed the audience. Neither error ruined the show and both were still very enjoyable acts, but the difference in impression between the two was huge.
Sound, led by Technical Director David Simpson is handled immaculately, working on its toes to be ready for whatever unexpected event might happen onstage. Lighting designs by Paul Smith are often distracting and are operated roughly by contrast to the sound. Musical compositions by Evan Jolly are extraordinarily beautiful and show amazing skill in timing around the ‘moments’ in each act’s routine. Of course when errors happen and the music goes ‘tah-dah’ before the act is complete or the performer is ready, it’s gratingly obvious, but when all goes right it’s symphonic bliss. Jolly’s score, recorded by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, craftily weaves in musical nuances that reflect the acts, whether it’s Latin rhythms to go with a Mexican knife-thrower (Alfonso Lopez) or lute and hurdy gurdy strains when Ukrainian acrobats take the stage. It’s beautifully atmospheric while also being perfectly placed for the era.
Some of the most entertaining routines come from some of the most basic of premises, French juggler The Great Gaston (Francois Borie) does amazing things with batons that you’ll never have seen before, while Duo Flash (Yevgeniy Dashkivskyy and Yefrem Bitkine) make simple floor-bound acrobatics entirely fresh and novel through beautifully timed dance moves and a non-stop routine. Les Incredibles (Anny Laplante and Andrei Kalesnikau) perform a hard to describe form of ‘trapeze’ (for want of a better term) featuring blindfolded somersaults that are truly awesome.
Back in 1903, it wouldn’t have been a circus without wild animals trained to perform tricks for a stunned (pre-television) audience for whom these creatures were tremendously exotic. Of course in today’s enlightened times that would be highly inappropriate but thanks to War Horse puppet creators Significant Object, the spectacle of a trained elephant (both mother and baby) can be re-lived on stage, no doubt thrilling every child in the audience. Moreover, this is a very family friendly production. Williamson as our Ringmaster (or perhaps more appropriately MC) intersperses the show with magic acts using child volunteers from the audience – a charming routine and I’m sure exciting experience for all the little ones involved, even as young as four. Years of experience on Disney Cruise Lines mean Williamson is expert at both entertaining children and keeping adults amused.
Circus 1903 isn’t without its issues and I couldn’t help but wish there was more in it for the adults in terms of history. When did the first tightrope act appear in a circus? Who was the most famous knife thrower? Were contortionists first discovered after travelling to the Far East? There’s a premise being set up here of winding back to the clock to a bygone era, but we’re expected to buy a programme if we want to learn any more about the history of circuses after the first five minutes of the show. It seems it would be quite easy to interlace a bit of this kind of storytelling as we transition between acts. But that’s a small niggle and you can really go down a rabbit hole if you start to worry about the irony of a show whose name literally means a circular playing space, being performed under a pro-arch! (It would be so wonderful to see this reverential production played in a traditional circus big top.)
No doubt putting circus acts in a theatre is a more cost effective way to bring these art forms to audiences around the world (it’s certainly considerably cheaper than Cirque du Soleil), and after Melbourne this Australian production is making its way to the US for a North American tour. So if you enjoy circus acts, do not miss your short opportunity to see this thoroughly enjoyable piece of family entertainment.
Presented by: Simon Painter and Tim Lawson for The Works Entertainment
Date Reviewed: 4th January, 2017