Circus 1903

Birmingham Hippodrome


Birmingham Hippodrome went back to its roots for a spectacular birthday party to celebrate 120 years of providing entertainment for the city.

In 1899, almost to the day, the 3,000 seater Tower of Varieties and Circus opened it’s doors for the first time, and as the century drew to a close the ring gave way to the end on configuration that we see today, reopening in 1900   the circus had turned into theatre.

And that is what Circus 1903 are still doing, turning circus, every night, into theatre, and its good, old-fashioned circus, the sort that filled the travelling big tops of Barnum & Bailey – and before you mutter it’s a Greatest Showman rip-off, Circus 1903 had its tent up and sawdust down a year before Hugh Jackman came to town – it’s just Circus 2016 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

The show tries to take us back to the days of the travelling circus, led by veteran US magician David Williamson in the guise of first fairground barker Willy Whipsnade and then transformed into that master of the world of sawdust and greasepaint, the ringmaster.

He has an engaging style, works an audience like an old pro and when he calls children on stage it is a masterclass in just how far you can go for laughs without upsetting little ones, letting them enjoy the jokes as well, although, being a bit picky, a couple of the adult asides might have been left in the box, particularly with a three year old on stage.

As for the acts . . . the modern circus was created by Philip Astley from Newcastle-under-Lyme 251 years ago, he had the revolutionary idea of performing in a ring, and his ring of 42ft diameter has been the standard size for circuses around the world ever since.

And 251 years is probably not far off the cumulative hours of practice, falls, training, blood, sweat and tears it has taken to reach the levels of skill on show. Some required strength, some strength and balance and, in the case of Senayet Asefa Amare from Ethiopia, bodies and joints made of rubber. She can lie on her stomach while her legs and feet chase around her body and probably scratch her nose with her toe . . . over the top of her head!

Something best not to try at home unless you fancy Christmas at the QE in traction.

We opened with The Daring Desafios from Brazil on a teeterboard, which is a seesaw to you and me, flying through the air almost to the flies with twists and somersaults galore then Mikhail Sozonov from Moscow with his rola bola act. Basically, its a collection of cylinders and diablos with a balance board on top going higher and high with the whole lot rolling inch by inch beneath him.

Our elastic Ethiopian, described as a dislocationalist, made particularly women cringe for a while as she weaved her body into impossible shapes to be followed by The Great Rokardy from Cuba who steadily balances on handstand canes, adding to them so the columns grow higher and higher, finally reaching six, which is about 12ft above the already high platform. Handstands on two thin wobbly columns which have little intention of remaining upright or evenly spaced takes bravery as well as skill.


Faster than the eye can see, the whirling clubs of Françoise Borie 

Closing the first act were The Flying Fredonis, Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych from Ukraine who were just sensational, the act of the night with their aerial silks routine. Williamson spoke of acts creating circus art but this took it a stage further to aerial ballet. A pas de deux in mid air with not only great skill and athleticism, and no little amount of danger, but great beauty as well.

Like the rest they had no safety nets and no safety lines, adding that hint of danger. Any mistake, any fall, any drop, would be for real.

The break over we returned with the elephants, life size puppets made by the same people who gave us Joey and co in War horse, and impressive they are too. Queenie, the mother needs four puppeteers, one for the trunk, one for the head and two on plasterer’s stilts for the legs, while Kranga, the baby is a little like a pantomime horse or cow, a lot more sophisticated mind, with a puppeteer as each of front and rear legs.

As with War Horse the puppets are lifelike and impressive, which is a tribute to all the hard work and practice the puppeteers must have put in, so much so that imagination soon takes over and they become real animals; for older members of the audience it takes them back to circuses of their youth when it meant parades and big tops.

With the elephants gone enter Les Incredibles, and that hint of Parisienne sophistication in the name meant you knew Ivan Fomichev and Maria Boldyreva must come from . . . Moscow.

He stands on a tower while she performs as a trapeze artist using his hands instead of a bar – called a Russian Cradle it is another act where one slip could bring danger.

OK, so surely Mademoiselle Natalia has to come from . . . Russia. Natalia Leontieva is a third-generation circus performer and does things with hula hoops while balancing on a big silver ball you would not believe. These are hula hoops from the days of the craze in the late 1950s and 60s, incidentally, not those little cylindrical potato snack things.

She manages to keep hoops twirling round all over her body and move the large ball around the stage at the same time. Quite remarkable. As was the next act, The Great Gaston, who must come from . . . Paris! At last, we win a cigar.

Françoise Borie is probably the fastest juggler I have ever seen, spinning clubs like propellers and even managing to keep seven clubs in the air at once. He juggles four Panama hats, high in the air, and had clubs so high they almost reached the flies. Years of dedication, practice, and I suspect a lot of bruised knuckles to create a few minutes of magic.

We had Willy Whipsnade and a card trick involving four children . . . and Penelope, aged three, who wanted to stay with her brother Oscar, and a baby racoon puppet, then guess which bucket a furry elephant toy is under for a dad and his daughter – the dad was set up to lose, but we all knew the daughter would win and get her toy.

Finally, we had The Remarkable Risleys, Icarian acrobats which apparently is circus-speak for foot juggling. One of the Mongolian duo lies on a bench and juggles his partner, acting as the springboard and engine for his acrobatics, ending with a whirling series of rotations. Brilliant stuff . . . a good act but perhaps not a showstopping finale to a night of circus.

Perhaps the stage size, which is cavernous for a theatre but small for a big top, or these days, arena, meant that the high wire and trapeze acts in the publicity trailers were missing, and, call me old fashioned, but I missed that great circus art of the clown, Charlie Cairoli being a favourite from my youth. Those moments of red nosed, joyous daftness that delighted children and adults alike.

The clown’s place to create mayhem and laughter went instead to Williamson who was a delight as Whipsnade, very funny, and with that particularly American style of deadpan humour we had from the likes of Jack Benny and George Burns.

From circus, to theatre, to circus, for two nights, at least, the Hippodrome story came full circle with age old magic which needed no special effects, no computer graphics, no illusions or sleight of hand, just the skill, artistry and wonder of circus. To 26-10-19.

Roger Clarke


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