REVIEW: Circus 1903 (Southbank Centre) ★★★★

Circus 1903 returns for a limited Christmas run to the Southbank Centre Royal Festival Hall with brand new acts: The Russian duo aerial act The Flying Fredonis, Cuban balancer The Great Rokardy, as well as Russian Rolling Ball and Hula Hoop artist Mademoiselle Natalia – and last but not certainly not least, the Magnificent Marvellos with their awe-inspiring Wheel of Death.

As evident from the list above, the team strive to bring together talent from all over the world. More seasoned acts include: juggling Great Gaston (Francois Borie), Rola Bola balancing act The Sensational Sozonova (Mikhail Sozonov and Ievgenija Fetkulova), the Elastic Dislocationist (Senayet Asefa Amare), Teeterboard artists The Daring Desafios (Joao Guilherme de Lima Siqueira, Luan de Souza Vieira and Leonardo Louzada de Freitas) and Russian Cradle Les Incredibles (Ivan Fomichev and Maria Boldyreva). At the heart of it all is Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson).

There’s no doubt about the talent of any of these artists and it’s a message that Circus 1903 likes to bring home: at the very core, a Circus would be nothing without the talent it is celebrating. During performances other artists are often on stage to look on, help out or cheer their colleagues on. Even though there may not be a clear narrative, the entire experience is acted out. Stagehands are in costume and can be observed working, partying, tidying and flirting. As such all of the setup or take down of specific props becomes part of the play. It’s a spectacle that celebrates the Golden Era of the Circus as a magic and wondrous affair. The overall structure echoes that of a travelling troupe arriving in town, with the more dangerous performances following in the big top tent with everyone in costume and ready to host and delight their audiences.

Ringmaster Whipsnade leads through the programme with much charm and wit – his interludes are some of the most entertaining bits and the glue which holds all together. The cast are great at making the audience believe their nervousness about dangerous or difficult tricks, and succeed in making the stakes feel high, and the tensions rise. There were many shocked and delighted gasps and whispers throughout.

The styling, costume and staging is firmly set within a stylised 1900s setting, the stage framed with painted banners advertising the “Strong Man” or “Dance of Death”. The show has Scenic Designer Todd Edwards Ivins and Costume Designer Angela Aaron to thank for that. Equally excellent and entrancing is the Lighting Design by Paul Smith, and the continuous wonderful score arranged by Composer and Musical Director Evan Jolly. Circus 1903 truly transports its audiences back to a time where the travelling entertainment was a bustling, exciting, “holiday day” event, and the beautiful Elephants Queenie and Peanut by the award-winning team behind the Warhorse puppets only add to this (Puppeteers: Mikey Brett, James Donovan, Amelie Leroy, Nyron Levy, Chris Milford and Will Palmer).

There isn’t a better time for something as wholesome and heartwarming as this family adventure, and it offers a great alternative to the yearly Panto.

Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent
Photo: Dan Tsantilis

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