It is hard to imagine a less circus-like environment than the auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall. Yet Circus 1903 is more theatre than circus. As stagehands hammer giant tent pegs into the stage with a rhythmic metal thunder worthy of Stomp! it is clear we are in for a spectacle more diverting than the anodyne antics of Cirque du Soleil.
This is a kind of inside out portrait of an Edwardian travelling carnival/circus, complete with freak show charlatanism along with the usual acrobats, jugglers and aerialists. There are also performing elephants.
But wait. The Freak Show interlude is hugely amusing as the Bearded Lady turns out to be a bloke with a moustache and the snake charmer appears to have been swallowed whole by her python. And the pachyderms – a huge African elephant and her misbehaving baby – are exquisitely designed puppets operated by a team who worked on War Horse. Anyone sitting in the front stalls is likely to get a soaking from a very realistic trunk.
This is grand stuff. Like Giffords Circus, it creates a genuine feeling of nostalgia and is imbued with a similar sense of humour. The acts are of a generally high calibre and agreeably old-fashioned. The knife-throwing act brings gasps galore while it’s white-knuckle time for a balancing act involving a tower of wobbly cylinders; Lucky Moon turns the Aerial Hoop act into an erotic ballet.
But the heartbeat of the show is David Williamson’s ringmaster Willy Whipsnade engages with the audience as well as his young volunteers in a manner that is warm, inviting, spicy, spiky and hilarious. He has the voice and charisma of US actor Sam Elliott. There is no higher praise.