Cirque du Soleil have dropped the hippie-drippy nonsense about the meaning of life and the soul of the universe and gone back to what they know best: fantastic circus acts, colourful vaudevillian costumes, raucous town square music and a tremendous finale of back-flipping, somersaulting gymnasts, some of them on stilts. Admittedly in Kooza, which dates from 2007 in the Cirque's repertoire, we still have the irritant of an audience-baiting warm up, with emergency horn signals, flashing lights and a trio of clowns who are only fairly funny for some of the time. But the simple setting of a carnivalesque carousel-cum-pavilion, with a band of wheezy jazz and rock musicians and a couple of mellifluous girl singers, creates the right circus atmosphere for a succession of world class turns where the Big Top holds sway over alternative cabaret, despite the lack of live animals. There is one animal, but he's a furry big dog with a girl inside, and he doesn't do much beyond lift his leg and squirt at the audience, which lowers the tone a bit. There's also an unexplained frogman who pops up and disappears again below sea sea-level… where the show never follows him, except perhaps in the second act opener of a dancing parade of skeletons, which looks a bit stupid without the usual black theatre effects. What about a few prancing prawns and sea anemones, please? The story is simply the induction of a small wide-eyed boy with a kite into the circus life by an athletic jack-in-the-box in a striped suit and pointy hat. When the circus leaves town, he rediscovers the joys of kite-flying and carries on where we came in. But what a string of treats on route in David Shiner's production, designed by Stéphane Rog, with costumes by Marie-Chantale Vuillancourt and choreography by Clarence Ford. There's a trio of super-supple female contortionists who end up looking like a Balinese temple statue, or Siamese triplets, sharing arms, legs and pelvises. Then there's a unicycle duet resembling Guy Ritchie and Madonna in stripy leggings and - after the king's toy town cannons have fired showers of ticker tape and streamers into the stalls (people in the boxes and galleries just have to do without) - a high wire act of Mongolian warriors who ride their bicycles across the ravine and then run backwards - doing entrechats!
But even that's nothing compared to the Russian-looking Beelzebubs on the wheel of death, a huge metallic structure with round bits at either end, like a really big giant's spectacles, who do gravity-and-death-defying running and leaping inside and outside (I couldn't watch) the wheels, now rotating at about forty miles an hour. Keeping things a little more real, there's a charming cat woman in a body stocking with a fistful of hula-hoops which she manipulates at high speed and as casually as if they were mini-bracelets, and an Oriental muscleman who builds a tower of a dozen wooden chairs and does gymnastic exercises all the way to the top. Now, if only we could have a more authoritative, whip-cracking ringmaster in a red tailcoat and topper, a few large horses and a couple of elephants, I'd be happy all year till next Christmas.