Review by Rosie Holmes
Roll Up, Roll Up! The circus has come to town and Circus 1903 have pitched their big top at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo for its 4th Christmas in London. Harking back to the golden age of circus, this show displays old school charm and plenty of talent, ranging from aerial acrobats, strong men and mind-boggling contortionists.
The show is held together by Ringmaster Stalwart Willy Whipsnade, played by David Williamson. Certainly capable, Williamson does a good job at building rapport with the audience and responds well to the unpredictability of the children who join him on stage. He charms the children themselves with classic magic tricks and plays to the adults as he makes jokes that go straight over the young audience member’s heads. However, his skits between the circus acts do feel a bit long. For me, the circus is about awe-inspiring talents and edge of your seat moments, whilst at times these were realised, the overly long interludes from Williamson meant the drama was diluted and rather stilted, never fully allowing us to be immersed into the drama of the circus. Williamson is no doubt a funny and charismatic entertainer, but some of his segments felt a bit awkward as he tried to over sentimentalise them.
There were definitely some talented performers on the stage. Sabrina Agania displayed some beautiful aerial talents, whilst the Rolling Rodriguez had me on the edge of my seat as he rolled around on an ever-growing tower of metal boxes. Also enjoyable were The Remarkable Risleys, a duo from Ethiopia displaying some incredible acrobatics as the youngest flew around the other. The Elastic Dislocationist displayed incredible contortion talents, so much so that I watched some of her act through my fingers as she bent into seemingly boneless poses that my brain struggled to compute. Although these acts weren’t always the most polished they all were wonderful to watch and provided some of the drama and awe that I expect when visiting the circus.
The most impressive display came from the very first act - the Daring Desafios. Displaying incredible talent as they sent each other flying from their teeterboard as the whole company cheered them on, I genuinely had a smile on my face the whole way through this act, yet seemingly this was the climax of the show and such a spectacle never appeared again.
All of the acts were expertly accompanied by Evan Jolly’s soaring and increasingly dramatic musical score, that for me was one of the strengths of the show, his compositions seemed to perfectly capture the personality of each individual performer and created suspense and drama when perhaps the performers themselves were not. The music fit perfectly with the 1903 theme and provided a cohesive thread throughout tying the show together.
The Eventim Apollo has a big stage to fill and at times this show did that well, particularly in the opening number as all the performers joined together to get the circus ready for a night of performance. However, the size of the stage did mean the show lost some of its charm and intimacy. At times single performers were swallowed up by the sheer size of the stage that meant their talents got lost along the way. Perhaps this show would have worked a lot better in a smaller setting, as it’s clear with Williamson’s repeated audience interaction and the company’s forays into the audience that this is a show that is designed to involve the audience. However, this isn’t really managed and therefore a lot of the charisma of what is a very sweet show was lost.
If you’ve seen any advertising or posters for Circus 1903 you will no doubt have seen pictures of the large elephant puppets used in the show. Queenie and Karanga, a large African elephant and her calf appear on stage shortly before the end of act one. Brought to us by the same team responsible for the wonderful War Horse puppetry they are rather awe-inspiring. Children in the audience seemed delighted by their appearance and it’s a very clever way of harking back to vintage circus traditions without breaking any animal welfare laws! Their all too few appearances were always met with audible gasps from young theatre-goers, which was something quite special.
Whilst this show was enjoyable, I felt what it was really missing was a climax. The finale comprised of a speech from Williamson about the magic of the circus and whilst this was sweet, what I really wanted was a thrilling display of danger or acrobatics, something I know the show has done in previous years. This left me feeling slightly underwhelmed and wanting more as we left the theatre, despite my overall enjoyment of the show.
This was a well put together production boasting some spectacular ensemble numbers, though more of these wouldn’t have gone amiss. Providing some sweet sentimentalism and giggles, Circus 1903 is certainly a good family alternative to pantomime this Christmas that children will undoubtedly enjoy.
Circus 1903 is playing at Eventim Apollo until 30th December. Tickets available from https://www.eventimapollo.com/
Photos by Manuel Harlan (Photos depict a previous production)