Circus 1903 takes us back in time to the turn of the 20th century when the circus coming to town drew huge crowds in search of laughter and wonder.
American Ring Master, Willy Whipsnade leads an old-world, sawdust big top, filled with variety acts and illusion. And perhaps the biggest illusion here is this show, while appearing old-fashioned, is as slick and creative as any modern-day circus extravaganza. It brings together all the latest technology, tricks of modern storytelling and astonishing physical feats to immerse the audience in a world where anything is possible. So much so, that when a life-sized elephant puppet (made by the creators of the War Horse puppets) walks on stage the whole audience gasps – in this cleverly constructed world of illusion we warm to Queenie like she is the real thing. And if that wasn’t enough – she has a baby called, Peanut – cuteness overload! My heart is bursting.
Early acrobatic acts are surrounded by a chorus of performers who add a sense of musical theatre similar to circus ring scenes from movie, ‘The Greatest Showman’. Just as in the popular movie, themes of magic, dreams and family are brought to the fore in Whipsnade’s skilled interaction with children from the crowd, which is both heart-warming and hilarious. In a magical, almost Santa Claus like way he connects us to our inner-child, making us want to believe his illusions. Whipsnade, a trained magician, takes on the parts of Ring Master, Clown, Illusionist and Narrator all rolled into one. It is a first-rate performance that pushes so many emotional buttons it’s almost as if we’ve been hypnotised.
For the other acts there is less illusion and more heart-stopping physical challenge – Whipsnade affectionately calls it circus art – generations of practised skill, honed into five minutes that live on in the memory of those who witness it. Here the music heightens what is already edge-of-the-seat drama, with world-class acts such as Serpentine Sinuousness (Senayet Asefa Amare) – The Elastic Dislocationist from Ethiopia, who contorts her body into such shapes that at times it looks like she’s grown additional arms and legs. Natalie Leontieva from Russia spins six hula-hoops across her body while balancing on a ball, before being used like a human hoopla. And Ganbayar Munkhbat and Andryei Batbold, from Mongolia, spin each other around on their feet with such speed that one of them appears like a ball.
Seeing is believing. In Circus 1903 so-called ‘old-fashioned’ circus just got a make-over. It’s looking fabulous and will likely bring live circus performance a whole generation of new fans.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Circus 1903 is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 19 –24 November 2019.