Neil Dorward and Simon Painter
The Works Entertainment, Fiery Angel Entertainment and Senbla
The Lowry, Salford
The title, Circus 1903, suggests a cosy nostalgic experience—looking at the glory days of circus through rose-coloured glasses. Director Neil Dorward (who co-created the show with Simon Painter), however, prefers to pay tribute to the skill and sheer hard work of the circus acts and, as a result, Circus 1903 is much more complex and satisfying.
Whilst Circus 1903 celebrates the craft of circus performing, it does so in a manner that allows the audience to see the effort going on behind the scenes and does not shy away from the sleazier aspects of the carnival. Although there are factual details, the presentation is relentlessly entertaining and fast-moving; far from being a dry museum piece.
Back in the day, the arrival of a circus would be a major event preceded by a massive poster campaign promoting the show and culminating in the acts parading through town to entice customers to the tent that had been erected on a piece of vacant land. The process of erecting and dismantling the tent was so efficient that, while the final acts performed, the procedure for stripping down the showground had already begun.
Director Neil Dorward gives the audience a taste of this process but in a stylish manner that draws in elements of theatre. The atmosphere in the first act is that of a bustling working environment revolving around setting up the tent. The acts perform dressed down as roustabouts and, while one is centre-stage doing backflips and somersaults, others are in the background hammering in tent pegs. The second act captures the glitz and glamour of the circus with the acts in full costume parading through the theatre waving flags before taking over the stage.
Circus 1903 is historically accurate and does not shy away from the less salubrious elements of the carnival. The sideshow, where patrons were given the chance to gawk at fake grotesques such as bearded ladies and glass-eating geeks, is reproduced in a shamefaced manner as if all involved know it is not very good.
Circus 1903 contains stunts that would have been appropriate during the early 20th century. The acts are not modernised to reflect contemporary concerns about health and safety and some of them are, frankly, a bit creepy. Senayet Asefa Amare is an astonishing contortionist but it is difficult to watch some of the positions she adopts without winching. The Remarkable Risleys live up to their title by using each other as pieces of acrobatic equipment.
The first act begins in a boisterous manner with the full cast rushing around the stage before settling down to a romantic interlude with the Flying Fredonis performing acrobatics like a mid-air Romeo and Juliet. Circus 1903 is shamelessly manipulative—jugglers pause to tie their shoelaces at the climax of their act and colleagues rush on stage to beg an acrobat teetering on an uneven display not to add another layer.
Circus 1903 does not avoid sentiment altogether. The appearance of stunning life-sized mother and child elephant puppets certainly exploits the ‘aww’ factor. Animal welfare concerns limit the use of real-life animals in contemporary circuses but the puppets, designed by Marvyn Millar and Tracy Waller, give an idea of the way they would have performed during the 1900s. On opening night at least, the circus benefitted from the involvement of some of the cutest children it is possible to imagine who were delighted to have the chance to join the cast on stage.
Central to the success of the show is the ringmaster, David Williamson as Willy Whipsnade (he picked the name before realising the UK was on the itinerary for the tour). Williamson serves as a narrator, filling in bits of historical detail, and is very much in the mode of Barnum—cheerfully hoodwinking patrons who are very happy to be deceived. Williamson plays the audience like a fiddle, strolling through the theatre before the show starts performing card tricks and generally charming patrons by showering them with handfuls of popcorn.
Circus 1903 is a labour of love for all involved and a pleasure to watch from start to finish.
Reviewer: David Cunningham