Billy Smart's Circus

Durdham Downs, Bristol, and touring

Production photo - Duo Biasini

Circus may be branching out into newer and more imaginative territory, with schools like Circomedia and troupes like No Fit State turning their hands to a more thoughtful style of showcasing the old skills, but for sheer circus pedigree, Billy Smart’s can’t easily be topped.

Bought in 1946 by Billy Smart Sr., fairground proprietor and showman, the circus in its heyday became one of Europe’s most successful touring enterprises, and at one point had an infantry of 200 performers and animals.

The animals are long gone, as are both generations of Billy Smart (Sr. and Jr.), but the circus began touring again in 1993. It’s clearly moved with the times (glow lights, strobe effects and clowns who box to the Rocky theme music), but there’s still a strong essence of brassy boldness in the colours and textures of the costumes, and lightning-bright smiles of the stars, which makes it feel just like the old entertainment (variety, circus, vaudeville) updated: as brash and vivacious as it would have been 60 or 70 years ago.

The acts which work best are still the simplest to imagine and probably the most complicated to perform. Marianna Kai in a gloriously surreal piece nonchalantly strolls up and down her upside down kitchen, suspended God-knows-how, juggling and bouncing balls. Similarly, Mongolian foot-juggler Miss Uelon-Jon proves that humans doing bizarre tricks are infinitely more exciting and delightful to watch than animals. As she runs upside down on a giant beach ball we are reminded of the original underlying attraction of circus; seeing oddball feats which invert the mundane world outside.

If there were any argument that a circus act needs no further artistry than the skill itself, it would doubtless come from The Flying Neves. A five-piece flying trapeze act, as classic kitsch as they come in lemon yellow and silver leotards, their high-octane antics are crowned by a rare triple somersault (apparently only achievable by a few individuals). As they bop to fast, slick jazz in between leaps this is nothing more than pure indulgent showmanship at its very best.

More problematic when it comes to the wow factor are the slower aerial acts. With silks so easy to install in cabaret shows and nightclubs, it’s hard to show audiences something they haven’t seen before. Romain Cabon’s solo, though perfectly executed, has a whiff of second-hand Cirque du Soleil in the operatic score and ethereal lights. More showy are Duo Biasini but their choice of music (Bon Jovi) makes the schmaltz aesthetic encroach on the overall effect.

But something which will never tire with the times is classic clowning, and Mexican clown Chico Rico, in his ringmaster-ish role in between acts, is fantastic. A rather hands-on clown who can play the boss as well as the buffoon, his bumbling slapstick style mixes new tricks with old premises, culminating in an audience participatory boxing match involving a lot of masking tape.

Billy Smart’s may not have the theatricality of many contemporary circuses but the tang of old-style glamour and pzazz, (even down to the gold-trimmed ushers), still hangs heavy in the air under the big-top. And that, as they say, is showbusiness.

Until 12th October

Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester

Are you sure?