As the bizarre Covid-based spectacles continue outside, during this déjà vu of a pre-Christmas season, this circus is an infinitely warmer, thrilling vintage treat. The Southbank Centre is hosting the show for a third successive year and with a large and lofty auditorium, the whole experience felt as safe as possible. With my now 12 year-old daughter in tow, I’d arrived hoping she’d still enjoy this type of event, which draws an audience of all ages.
The performance is led by ringmaster extraordinaire Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson), who admits he didn’t know the implications of this choice of name while performing in the UK… Willy instantly offers us a warm and nostalgic invitation to become a 1903 audience as the circus train has rolled into town (“hop on over the railroad tracks and join us tonight…”). This immediately draws us into the world of an authentic, travelling extravaganza from the turn of the last century. Willy’s philosophical monologues and act introductions are peppered throughout the show, and he also takes the role of an extremely charismatic and impressive star magician, inviting the youngest audience members to assist with the genuinely funny tricks. This leads to much clowning and fun buffoonery.
We’re instantly hit with an onslaught of talent from The Daring Desafios, a quartet of brave acrobats on a teeterboard – a giant see-saw – which catapults them to truly dizzying heights. It’s utterly breath-taking! There then follows a non-stop series of acts and never a moment in which to be bored or barely catch your breath. From high-flying acrobats, a ballet played out on a push bike, a dazzling and dangerous roller skating duo who left me quite panic-stricken, to genius juggler Roberto Carlos who oozes so much joyful positivity that I honestly don’t think he even needs any of the applause.
Another fantastic spectacle are the stunning puppets of African elephants Queenie and baby Peanut. Crafted and directed by Significant Object, they are inspired by work on the international hit War Horse from Handspring Puppet Company.They had the audience spellbound with every natural movement, the multiple operators all completely in sync.
Alongside the amazing acrobats and death-defying balancing acts, the act that made my heart race the most was the ‘Wheel of Death’,performed by The Magnificent Marvellos: Terrifying! I mean the audience went wild for it, but it was very daring and I drew many a sharp intake of breath and was watching through my fingers by the end. My theatre companion, who was enjoying her first theatre trip in two years, loved every minute.
Whipsnade addresses the audience directly during a quiet, philosophical moment and reminds us that when we look at the acts, we don’t just see talent but also the hundreds of hours of practice they must have endured to be this good. Practice that pays off in this hugely gifted and mesmerizing variety show, which culminated in a standing ovation. Willy’s ingredients for the show are: “Tradition, talent, heart” and just like in other moments in history when we’ve needed a lift, Circus 1903 fills this big top by the Thames to the absolute brim with all three.
Written by: Mike Caveney & Chris Berry
Directed by: Neil Dorward
Produced by: Simon Painter, Michael Stevens, Edward Snape & Terrence Williams
Circus 1903 plays at the Southbank Centre until 2 Janurary 2022. Further information and booking via the below link.