Cardiff City Football Ground, Cardiff; 5pm, 22nd October 2016
Impressario Gerry Cottle has one of the most recognisable names in British circus and family entertainment, thanks to an extensive touring career over half a century, regular television appearances, and more than 10 years running the Wookey Hole attraction in Somerset (including its own circus school). His latest production lives up to this reputation for fun, in a show that’s full of youthful vibrancy and optimism.
There’s a rock’n’roll theme to the music and costuming, which begins at a 1950s roller hop, and moves through a lively soundtrack that includes an electro-rock Blue Moon, a jive version of Rhianna’s Umbrella, and instrumental Michael Jackson. (For its first month, the show toured under the name Rock Circus, and the concession foyer is still styled to reflect this).
Director Willie Ramsay knows how to energise a ring with a sequence of contrasting acts and, even though the tent seems less than a third full (we’re in the 5pm slot of a three show day), the audience engagement remains high throughout. The red big top, with its yellow designs, is lovely and warm inside, the internal canvas dark blue and live with swirling patterns of light. At the back of the ring, a raised stage with black curtains sits where its more usual to see an ornate ring-door entrance. This allows for large stage illusion contraptions to be set and revealed but must also contribute to the visual sense, through much of the show, of the ring as a stark expanse of empty space.
Magic is a large part of the WOW Circus line-up, even though the award-winning Scott & Muriel have now moved on from the show (replaced by the deservedly popular clown Tweedy). The all-female illusionist troupe Magique – led by Cottle’s eldest daughter Sarah, in a series of vanishing tricks from increasingly dangerous looking boxes – help produce an unusual variety bill flavour amid traditional circus clowning and physical skill acts. Tweedy gives us his own skilled takes on classic clownery: contraptions that fail to work as we’d expect, the backwards juggling of dropped props, cowbell music, and a funny take on the ‘kiss it better’ routine that I’ve not seen before (wiping dirt off various items). Coreo Hazzard, on the other hand, provides a different brand of buffoonery that is more in line with the vaudeville speciality act.
Full disclosure: I was at university with Coreo many moons ago. The first time I ever saw ping-pong balls being juggled out of someone’s mouth was during his slot in a student open-mic show. Whilst that act is still in his repertoire, he also makes an impression with a giant balloon for a head, and a delightful ability to make the children of the audience into the stars of his routines. The shiny blue suit he wears is revealed in the second half to be made of fibre optic threads that turn him into a glowing figure to juggle a light-up diabolo, whose sticks change colour as the illuminated axles fly into the air.
While the lights are down, he is followed by a short sequence of glowing ball juggling patterns from Billy Herrin. Similarly dressed in a blue suit and bow-tie, the pair are the unspoken hosts of the show, assisting with other acts and tying the various numbers together by their presence. There are no ring-master announcements; instead, record covers displaying the Rock Circus logo and names of acts are occasionally used to indicate who we’ll be seeing next.
Billy is a natural showman, with a little whiteface swank about him, tempered with a twinkling smile and magnetic energy. While he doesn’t have an act of his own, he takes part in the juggling and trick cycling along with the WOW Troupe, whose number include four Cottle grandchildren in the family circus tradition. The scene builds with unicycles, Tweedy’s oddball tandem, and finally a motorbike that roars along a wire above the ring while Ellen Ramsay (the eldest of the grand-daughters) hangs on a trapeze attached underneath.
Mike Comber, who drives the motorcycle, is also Ellen’s partner in an aerial straps act, and further aerial feats are performed by Stefanie Usher, on a shining umbrella with curved handle and loops for foot and neck holds, and by Michael Ionescu. He impresses in his first routine on balance canes, with a precision of hand and arm movements that guide our eye into his inverted poses, then his Washington trapeze act in the second half is stupendous. Supported just by his head on the trapeze, he swings up to the ceiling canvas, and then twists the swing so that the coil unfurls with him still in position. Being present during this live experience is far more exhilarating than watching the televised clips of his Britain’s Got Talent appearance could ever suggest (four yesses, in case you’re wondering!).
Ground acrobatics are provided by the Tanzanian Tornadoes troupe of four, in segments that include group pyramids, limbo and skipping tricks. Hawaiian shirts fit nicely within the rock’n’roll theme, although the traditional ‘African acrobats’ costuming used later seems out of place. The WOW troupe offer juggling displays as well as their roller skating, trick cycling and magic routines, and (though some faces show their concentration more clearly than others) it is the youthful pleasure of these group numbers that gives this show its unique character. Peppered with surprise and special talents, Gerry Cottle’s WOW Circus is a feel-good package of entertainment for any age.