Review: Circus 1903 (Birmingham Hippodrome)

The circus troupe celebrates the venue’s 120th birthday

Circus 1903
Circus 1903
© Manuel Harlan

In 1899 when Birmingham Hippodrome first opened its doors, it did so with a circus – and so it was fitting that on the day the theatre celebrated its 120th birthday it again had circus on stage. This time it was the touring production Circus 1903, a fun family show in the tradition of the big top.

Created by Neil Dorward, Circus 1903 brings together artists from across the globe in a series of breath-taking acts including juggling, trapeze, balance and acrobatics. Linking and presenting the acts is David Williamson as the larger-than-life Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade – a consummate showman. From the moment Williamson steps onto the stage he holds the audience in the palm of his hand with his blend of slapstick humour, bravado and just plain silliness. With a flourish of his top hat he brings alive the circus of yesteryear. Williamson could also hold his own in panto. Throughout the performance he invites children to join him on stage for jokes and stunts and he is brilliant at working with them to create impromptu humour.

There's plenty to wow the audiences. Senayet Asefa Amare as The Elastic Dislocationist is simply incredible as she contorts her body into shapes which it's hard to believe are physically possible. Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych are beautiful as they perform high top feats as The Flying
Fredonis and Francois Borie is a super speedy juggler as The Great Gaston. Ganbayar Munkhbat and Andryei Batbold turn some impressive spins and jumps as the foot jugglers The Remarkable Risleys, Ivan Fomichev and Maria Boldyreva perform a series of high flying acrobatics as Les Incredibles and Mikhail Sozonov has everyone on the edge of their seats when he balances on the rola bola as The Sensational Sozonov.

In true circus tradition the company also has two resident elephants Queenie and Peanut, created by leading puppet company Significant Object. Managed by a team of puppeteers, the two elephants move and act as animals so they come alive even though the audience is fully aware that all these movements are being manipulated by people.

Birmingham Hippodrome is the first venue on this UK and Ireland tour, which culminates with Christmas dates at London's Southbank Centre – and at opening night in Birmingham that does show. There are quite a few slips and trips across the acts and the overall performance feels like it needs a bit more polish.

However entertainment is provided by the bucket-load with thrills across the production and lots of showbiz. Circus 1903 reminds us of the magic of traditional circus in which the human body can perform feats of daring and danger and the audience becomes part of that special excitement of the big top.