After touring around North America, Cirque du Soleil’s Totem is back at the Royal Albert Hall for a limited run.

Cirque are known for creating visually astounding shows that keep the audience on the edge of their seats - all the while hoping that a performer doesn’t seriously injure themselves - and loosely binding the tricks together with a tenuous plot.

Totem, which is directed by Robert LePage (his second collaboration with Cirque), continues very much in this vein; in fact, I still have no idea if there even was a plot. It’s advertised as telling the evolution of mankind, though I’m not quite sure what aliens - who appear at various moments throughout the show by descending from the heavens covered in thousands of mirror fragments - have to do with this.

Aside from the random proliferation of apes, clowns, scientists, and a strange red man with a light inside his hat, the acts are incredible. From a Native American woman being spun around by her neck from a man on roller stakes, to Chinese women kicking and catching bowls on their heads, whilst managing to ride around on tall unicycles, there's an eclectic mix of acrobatic skills on display.

For anyone that has seen a sit-down production of Cirque du Soleil (myself included), the staging is incomparable, but I was impressed with how they utilised the space, especially one element that is manipulated from a bridge to a speedboat using state of the act projections to heighten the realism.

- Peter Gibbons


NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from 6 January 2011, and this production's premiere at the Royal Albert Hall.

Microbes and monkeys, swamps and springboards, lasers and lotharios: welcome to the latest Cirque du Soleil pan-global mystical extravaganza in which basic circus thrills and skills are dressed up in a luminous wash of New Age claptrap and Third World rock music.

The lighting is spectacular, the acrobatics tremendous. But even avant garde former wunderkind Robert Lepage, directing his second show for his Canadian street-theatre-gone-crazy-commercial counterparts, cannot dispel the pervasive sense of notorious naffness that always surrounds Cirque.

That caveat, I have to say, hasn’t stopped me turning up pretty regularly over the past twenty years, if only to see something as good as the second act love duets here between a Canadian trapeze act and an Italian roller-skating Indian squire and his squaw.

The costumes are exceptional, from the minute we see a human, foetal glitter ball descend from the full height of the building and touch-start the primeval writhings in a bony, spongy adventure playground that looks like a huge cranium. Then, from the depths of the bamboo forest (where lurk the musicians) come... an Italian beach clown, a pair of lifeguards and a beautiful girl in pink who does gym exercises with hand rings.

The Darwinian evolution theme is pretty much dumped as it’s suggested, but that doesn’t stop old Darwin himself skirting the action, chumming up with a hairy ape and revealing himself to be a pretty good juggler in a huge plastic cone with coloured balls.

As an eyeball feast, the show will suffice. But it’s significant that by far the most beautiful and seductive sequence – nothing to do with the circle of life or the mysteries of the universe — is provided by five Chinese ladies in temple outfits on unicycles doing synchronised juggling with tea bowls, flicking them from their feet first into their own head-pieces, then into the others’ and finally in all directions without spilling a single one.