|Luke Chadwick-Jones and David Williamson (credit David James McCarthy)|
Review by John Lombard
A gentle shower of popcorn is an unusual start to a night at the theatre, but it’s the perfect opening to Circus 1903, a highly polished recreation of the old-time Big Top circus that melds a patina of carny hucksterism with the elite performance of the modern circus.
The culprit is Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson), a cynical PT Barnum who is weary from the endless trek of bringing the circus from town to town. The performance starts with the lights up and Willy spruiking a tray full of (possibly overpriced) snacks to the audience. But he impatiently just starts to pelt them into the crowd, small comets leaving trails of kernels.
Nothing creates the feel of the Big Top like the smell of popcorn, unless is the crunch when it is underfoot.
Circus 1903 is a nostalgic homage to cheap entertainment, a split personality most obvious in the sideshow gag sequence where a series of deliberately wonky freak acts give way to a genuinely impressive contortionist. It is also a homage to a simpler kind of circus, where there are no elaborate artistic pretensions, only the raw thrill of humans doing things that humans probably shouldn’t be doing.
The circus offers a full collection of the iconic, classical acts – tightrope walking, tumbling, and my personal favourite, the knife throwing act where the knives are also on fire. Flavour comes from Whipsnade’s patter – one act is “the greatest solo aerialist of her generation” – puffs that are as cornball as the acts are accomplished.
At times, the acts wobbled, and after the show there was great debate on whether this was deliberately staged to raise tension. Some of the slips seemed real, and brought home the drama of the performance. At other times, the reaction of the performer was a little too over-the-top, with muscles elaborately massaged and flexed. But overall these moments added to the reality of the performances.
One of the great promises of the show was the return of elephants to the circus, minus the elephant cruelty. This was achieved with some gorgeous puppets, in particular one rambunctious baby elephant who quite deliberately stole the show. This was a nostalgic, sanitised look back at the classic animal acts, but the movement of the animals was beautiful, evoking the Royal National Theatre’s puppet work in His Dark Materials.
The music chosen to accompany the show was excellent, pounding music as the big-top is set up, ethereal twinkling for moments of wonder, and swashbuckling accompaniment for anything involving sharp objects. The music worked particularly well with the puppets to create a convincing illusion.
Circus 1903 draws on history, cleans it up and gives us the kind of circus that only ever really existed in the movies, where the slapdash elements (here completely deliberate) only make it more loveable. Humour, wonder, and genuinely thrilling acts – it may not be in the Big Top, but it perfectly captures the spirit of the Golden Age of the Circus.
At the Canberra Theatre Centre until 11 December. Tickets at https://canberratheatrecentre.com.au/show/circus-1903/