Please don’t send in the clowns, I whispered to myself as I took a seat at the Royal Festival Hall last night to watch Circus 1903. And here’s the great news: there wasn’t a single Krusty, Bozo or Grimaldi in this funny, sensual and gravity-defying showstopper. What you get instead is a big top serving of acrobatics, contortionists, jugglers, a homicidal wheel of death and the star attraction: a pair of life-sized elephant puppets.
Fresh from the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, Circus 1903 is a delightful nod to the golden age of classic circus. It’s a dollop of Dumbo, a side of The Greatest Showman and a little of Water for Elephants. It even has echoes of the horror film which I always find so touching, Freaks.
We have a thing for the circus in my family – my mother ran away with an organ grinder when she was a little girl (she didn’t get far), and I went to circus school for a year in Paris. I seem to remember I wanted to be a tightrope walker. Let’s not go there.
Circus 1903 is cruelty-free old-school circus nostalgia. No animals were harmed in the making of this entertainment. Instead, the puppetry team behind War Horse were tasked with creating a pair of pachyderms: mother and calf, Queenie and Peanut. You quickly forget these puppets aren’t the real deal. I just wish we had seen more of majestic Queenie who only made a single appearance.
Willy Whipsnade was the evening’s Ringmaster extraordinaire, providing us with laughs, magic and mischief. He spent the evening in the company of the most dangerous acts of all: children from the audience. I am pleased to report last night’s magical assistants were on their best behaviour.
On the circus menu was a Cycling Cyclone, the Flying Finns (who brought new meaning to playing with a teeterboard) and the airborne Les Incredibles (pronounced with ze French accent).
Think Elastigirl from The Incredibles has superpower skills? Meet The Elastic Disclocationist, a contortionist who really knows a thing or two about getting her knickers in a twist. She braided her body into positions with exquisite poise and symmetry, and she isn’t even double-jointed.
Then there was Gaston the Great, the Juggling Juggernaut. Gaston (François Borie) trained at the Academie Fratellini in Paris and is one of the fastest jugglers in the world. You can come and flip crèpes for me any day, Gaston.
The off-stage action was just as enthralling to watch. My eleven year-old, who yawns through most productions, was jumping out of her seat with excitement. And it wasn’t just the pint-sized humans who were on fire. Circus 1903 seemed to be bringing out the inner child in all the mums and dads as well.
Expect an evening of razzle-dazzle and some mighty talent down at Southbank’s pop-up big top. You’ll gasp. You’ll cheer. You’ll close your eyes. And there might even be some cream pie-throwing. Circus 1903 is charming and worth every dime. Just don’t try any of this at home over Christmas.
Circus 1903 is on at the Royal Festival Hall until the 5 January. You can book tickets here