Star City, Birmingham; 2nd January 2016
My first circus of 2016 has been a roller coaster – some highs, some lows, some coasting and most certainly a whole load of thrills. Presented by the Planet Circus team (who also brought the Continental Circus Berlin to Star City for last year’s Christmas show), this is the second time the Great Canadian Circus has appeared in the UK and this afternoon, with only one more day of performances left, the big top is completely sold out.
This does lead to some considerable delays and – at a guess – maybe a couple of little cuts to the programme to ensure the evening show can go up on time. With an extended pre-show and interval, I have time to reflect that reviewing a tenting circus covers so much more of an experience than work that tours to traditional theatres. The event is more than simply the acts that take place within the ring.
From the outside, the Great Canadian Circus is well presented, with its red and white tent and shining bulbs announcing ‘SPECTACULAR’ and ‘OMG’. The branding is a bit confused though. The smart signs on the sides of wagons and fleeces of the crew are all emblazoned with Planet Circus, and the colour scheme is star-spangled red white and blue to evoke the USA. The only nod to Canada is the waving of two maple-leaf flags to announce the beginning of the show. Not that nationality matters when it comes to circus, of course; but then, why bother with the name? Is it to cash in on the circus cool that Canada has gathered around itself based on its popular globally touring exports and renowned modern training centre? But I digress.
Inside the foyer tent are festoons of seasonal sparkle, with displays of santa, a frosted snowman, and a Christmas tree complete with gifts. Whoever chose the music today needs a stern talking to though because, while the hip hop style may have been appropriate for the urban setting of Star City, the cuss words coming through the speakers were certainly not the sort of thing young families generally listen to!
This is a high-merchandise circus but then, ’tis the season to be thriftless, and the variety of fare adds to the intense atmosphere. I pass through the festively decked foyer tent with its popcorn, pancake, slushy drink and hotdog stands (where they also sell the best circus burger I’ve ever tasted, with real grated cheese and fried onions), into the cosily warm main tent, which hosts a face painting stand and complacent bearers of flashing toys and spinning plates. I also see hula hoops, balloons featuring characters from popular kids’ films, furry wiggly snakes on sticks, ice lollies and ice creams, and Rocky the Clown (more often known as Ozzy, aka Gary Brophy) carrying a tray of candy floss.
I’m going a little bit loopy here, trying to work out if I should be finding and uncovering the facts about the performers, or stick with the story the circus is selling. It’s not as clear cut as in theatre, when the actors are unabashed in their job of pretending to be something they’re not. Circus is more like wrestling. Is it fair to break kayfabe? Yet again I’m questioning what exactly my role is here. As I see it, I’m writing for those linked to the circus sector, either by trade or passion, to whom the facts are important and interesting. If I were writing a promotional review for potential audiences in the local paper, perhaps I would have to think differently but, for now, I’ll continue with the forensics and be as accurate as I can. If you have any thoughts on this approach, please let me know in the comments!
Aptly enough, the first act is a very well put together trampoline wrestling act from Svilen Marinov and Vitalie Eremia (who appear later as The Eremia Brothers with an outstanding Wheel Of Death act). The wrestling neatly combines drama and comedy, and remains unpredictable and exciting through several bouts, because there is no clear hero/villain dichotomy. The two men are excellent performers, even with their faces completely masked!
Next up is a slick hula hoop number with a beautifully spangled presentation from an ultra-sparkly Bonita Brophy, including a glitter-ball walking globe, and finishing with the traditional multi-hoop catch that creates a whirling dress of silver hoops, fitting the style of the act completely. I’m not sure who’s performing the role of ringmistress today, but I have a lot of trouble making out her announcements over the music, and have had to cross reference all performer names online. Her military inspired tailcoat costume is stunning though – I want one!
Ozzy the Clown follows with a small boomerang sequence. I don’t usually warm to full-face clowns, but Ozzy is sweet and understated in his performance and very likeable. He asks permission to come back later and gets a resounding ‘yes!‘ from the crowd.
The Chinese pole has been rigged for Krisztian Krizsa and the ring fence is now lit with fire colours. Winner of the 2015 UK Aerial Performance Championship, he is a strong and engaging performer who works with slowness to build our anticipation. Four separate climbing sequences are allowed their own space, and then the act ends sharply with a surprising hand slide down one of the tethering straps.
Duo Vertical (Tibor Mihalovics and Timea Krizsa) launch into a high head perch act, then transition to a single shoulder perch, then a double shoulder with swivel on top for hand balance. Smart choreography between the two while stage hands swap equipment keeps the act flowing nicely.
Announced as ‘Direct from the Calgary stampede’, in keeping with the Canadian brand, come the Brophy Family with their Western act of whip cracking and lasso work. Gary manages an impressive combination of lasso twirling and contact manipulation in a trick called a Butterfly Roll, and also demonstrates a variety of knots tied one-handed with a vertically dangled and pulled rope. His daughter Jessinta spins pistols, and a huge lasso loop that takes up almost the entire ring and, together with sister Bonita and mother Caroline, the whole family engage in whip work that tears newspapers and ribbons from out of each other’s hands. Recognisable themed music is very well chosen, and this is a highly entertaining and well-paced act.
The interval is heralded by a real live Transformer, introduced to great effect with a sci-fi sounding voice over and suspense, and this Nomada autobot had me grinning from ear to ear.
The interval lasts over half an hour, which seems due to the sheer number of people taking in the circus experience, and at ten to five I’m thinking, ‘Doesn’t the next show start at 6?!‘
As we watch the crew rig the Wheel of Death, the child next to me confidently announces, ‘It’s gonna be fake. They’re gonna have strings on their back so they don’t fall off‘. What a surprise for him, then, when the Eremia Brothers perform their particularly daring routine with great panache and, of course, no strings attached. The tension they create is incredible, and I had to watch with my hands to my face almost the entire time. These fellas know how to put on a superb show.
Ozzy comes to relieve the tension with a witty self-raining umbrella, and then El Mariachi Marquez (Gordon Marquez) presents an inspired Desperado-style speed juggling routine featuring clubs, ping pong balls, and small balls tossed and bounced tightly around his wrists and forearms, then launched high into holster pockets on his belt. Marquez is another uniquely strong and stylish showman on a bill that already boasts several.
Finally, the 10 ton Globe of Death is wheeled onto the stage. The ringmistress provides stats while it’s being secured but, like many of her previous announcements, I struggle to make out the details. I do hear the introduction for Peter Pavlov, Europe’s Youngest Stunt Rider, who’s appeared on CBBC and Britain’s Got Talent. He opens the act, circling up and around inside the giant metal ball, and then is replaced by four older members of the OMG! team who whizz around together while the globe splits open like an egg. A fifth member joins them, and the lights darken to reveal the coloured lights on their bikes flashing about the metal cage. Revving engines are not my sort of thrill, and the fuel smell always makes me feel a bit ill but, nevertheless, its a very impressive feat.
The show comes to an abrupt end with no company bows, presumably due to time constraints before the next show. Director and producer Mark Whitney has pulled together some stirling acts and – despite no real Canadian imports as far as I could tell – the show is deservedly popular. We’re ushered out of the tent via a separate exit, so there’s no return to the concessions as the next crowd of eager patrons gather, to experience the penultimate day of the Great Canadian Circus’ Christmas Spectacular.