Review of ‘Circus 1903’: “Nostalgia takes its toll”

For its fourth year in a row, this musical extravaganza featuring the most unusual display of talents visits London for a strictly limited run during the Christmas season. Guillermo Názara reviews this family show put together by an impressive troupe of artists and even West End award-winning creatives, to let us know if this is a gift for the loved or the hated ones.

I remember those days when I was young and innocent. I think the latter lasted for a nice couple of seconds. But however much of a brat I was (the use of the past for… whatever reason), I’ve always tried to keep that box of genuine fascination unsealed. The circus coming to town was, in fact, one of those moments when the lid would be literally thrown to the ground. Those first butterflies in your stomach, going back through the memories of those revered past performances you had been charmed with, and of which you just couldn’t get enough. That followed anticipation when your imagination ran wild, expecting, however, to see exactly the same you had watched the previous year, but confident it would be better as that was what you wanted and all you wanted alone. And of course, that moment of almost swooning ecstasy, when your parents surprised you with the tickets (those little passports to a land of gigantic happiness) and the countdown began until the hour you go through the tent and those glowing bulbs flashed before your eyes as you took your seat in a mixture of unprecedented bewilderement and old friends reunion.

I do recall those times with special fondness. Those shivers invading you when the lights dimmed and the drumroll echoed through as the welcoming announcement faded in. The colourful wonder that dyed your heart in white and red stripes, unlocking that strange though comforting sensation of pure glee that, not suprisingly, infected your grown-up family probably with more intensity than even in yourself. And that rare smell of funfair treats (cotton candy being the star) and animal stench… Oops, maybe that’s a memory to repress after all… Well, I think that we can always allow good moments to have a flaw or two (See? I learned my lesson when watching Inside Out). But if smell is too much of a problem for you (I know, I too am concerned about where this review may be heading too), Circus 1903 is not something to worry, as it captures the allure of tradition through a modernized prism.

In the recently polished art decó charm of London’s Eventim Apollo (do I need to specify it’s Hammersmith?), an silent stage, envolved in that usual allure of theatrical eeriness, awaits its visitors for a night of spectacle and variety. Amidst the impatience of the smallest ones (yeah, that’s me), a playful host wanders around – he’s kind… in his way. You may be confused, but one thing’s clear here: this is not the sort of circus you may be accustomed to, but it’s certainly not any worse.

7:30 (ish) arrives. It’s show time! The vibrant enchantment of early 20th century America (the very same that Walt Disney himself so much admired, for better or worse) unrolls in an exciting exhibit of the rarest of gifts, with performances ranging from nail-biting to sometimes uncomfortably tense (though impossible not to look at). Featuring artists coming from every corner of the world (or so they say, I’m no doing any more research – it’s holiday time, for God’s sake), this production works quite well as a variety performance – portraying genuine skills that, though do not bring anything new to the party, keep the wowing factor we all expect (and demand) for this kind of entertainment. And regarding those, they have it in spades as of amount and quality.

Despite the impressiveness of its troupe’s amazing capabilities (many of which are carried out with remarkable impecability) and their ability to push a few frenzy buttons in your body like no other genre can do, the montage is, however, not in lack of some flaws. Though still spectacular to see, the set design could actually benefit not only from a more intricate design, but also the fact that the venue give a marvellous (and unparallel) opportunity to make the experience more immersive. It’s a touring version, and I get that, but just a simple proscenium, maybe featuring those typical bulbs I mentioned before lined all around would allow for a more seamless (and thus better) transition from the audience to the actors’ spaces. At the same time, though featuring a very well selected soundtrack, a real live orchestra instead of recorded music, would have meant the perfect addition to a show that already has quite an appeal of its own.

Last week I ran a special post listing the 12 theatre plans you simply couldn’t avoid this Christmas (I’m good at promoting my stuff, aren’t I?). I took a gamble with this one, since I hadn’t seen it, but still moved ahead and recommended it. I was right (surprise, surprise – just joking… about being right, I mean). The show is actually a nice Christmas plan to enjoy both with family or friends – or even on your own if you just need that little boost of laughter and joy any good silly fun (in the best of ways) can give us. Theatre makes you think sometimes. But we needn’t (or mustn’t) do it too much, however. The stage, as they say, is a mirror of life – and as such, for some things to work, they can’t be overreflected. They just need to be felt. You will indeed with this one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Circus 1903 plays at London’s Eventim Apollo Hammersmith until 30 December. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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