Directed by Neil Dorward. Scenery design by Todd Edward Ivins.
Costumes designed by Angela Aaron. Lighting designed by Paul Smith
Music composed by Evan Jolly.
Presented by Simon Painter and Tim Lawson for the Works Entertainment
Canberra Theatre Centre 1st – 10th December 2016.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Just when you think you’ve seen every possible connotation of circus, along comes a show that blows you out of the water. “Circus 1903” is that sort of show.
This brilliantly realised concept sees 20th century circus re-imagined through 21st century sensibility, utilising clever design which takes full advantage of modern theatrical technology to conjure up an exciting and romantic circus world which probably never existed, but is evocative enough to awaken memories of the wonders of that first visit to a circus.
Ringmaster, Willy Whipsnade (wondrously portrayed by avuncular magician David Williamson) arrives before the circus and within minutes has every kid in the audience, young and old, wide -eyed and under his spell. He dispenses popcorn and comedic corn in equal quantities, like some lovable, wicked uncle on a mission to enthral everyone with the magic of circus.
And just as magically as he’s promised the circus arrives in a flurry of activity with muscular roustabouts and gaudily costumed circus dwellers setting up the big top and side-shows in a series of cleverly choreographed sequences which showcase a succession of brilliant specialty acts from around the world.
The first act concludes spectacularly with the raising of big top, and the whole ensemble transforming astonishingly into colourfully costumed circus performers, then recommencing after interval with a grand parade, with Whipsnade, now in full ringmaster regalia, expounding the virtues of each act from his repertoire of delightful hyperbole.
All of the brilliant speciality acts harken back to traditional circus skills which may have been on show in 1903, but in this show, refined and developed to a level of skill and ingenuity surely unimaginable in 1903. High wire walkers and a knife thrower from Mexico, acrobats from Spain, a speed juggler from France, a truly amazing contortionist from Ethiopia, a stunning aerialist from the Ukraine, and an unbelievable trapeze duo from Canada, are just some of the acts which amaze and dazzle.
But as amazing as these acts are, it is the presentation surrounding them, together with the stunning recorded soundtrack that references circuses of yesteryear that lifts this show into a class of its own.
However, for the kids in the audience, it’s the animals they’ll remember most vividly. Not real ones, but the mighty puppet elephant which enters magically through the mist, or the lovable baby elephant that scampers around the stage, or perhaps Whipsnade’s hilariously unco-operative racoon.
While cleverly tapping into that rich vein of nostalgia most adults cherish of their first circus experience, “Circus 1903” lives up to its pre-publicity in every way, providing an extraordinarily charming and spectacular entertainment for the whole family.
Following its world premiere season in Canberra “Circus 1903” will play the Sydney Opera House from 18th to 29th January , then the Regent Theatre in Melbourne from 3rd to12th February, before moving on to an extensive tour of North America. Catch it while you can.
This review also appears in Australian Arts Review. www.artsreview.com.au