Blackheath, London; 28th March 2016
This season’s show from Zippo’s Circus is a classically modelled big top tour that, in a celebration of the company’s 30th anniversary, revisits the spirit of variety entertainment that I fondly remember from growing up with Saturday night television in the 1980s. This is a show for all ages, and the Mega Dome tent is stocked with up-to-date technical equipment to ensure the production values stay relevent to modern audiences.
The evening after the show, I filed a review for The Stage’s 9am deadline, which was published here. For circus aficionados though, 250 words doesn’t seem enough to report on the event fully, so here is an lengthier version with full credits.
We’re in the wake of Storm Katie, but the Mega Dome and its surrounding wagons seem to have fared well. The previous night was a long one though for some of the team shoring up the site, and ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE opens the show with a thanks to those who were working until the early hours.
Inside, though, everything is warm, and filled with the flashing lights and candyfloss available from concession stands. This is ‘press night’, and there is a special reception area of the tent decorated with press clippings of Zippos’ history, and the vibrant artwork of Curtis Tappenden. The artist creates live sketches in bold colours and dynamic lines from the circus shows he sees (and I’m hoping to get down to his first public exhibition to nab a couple for myself!)
The main clown is Mr Lorenz (Lorenzo Carnevale), a dapper Italian with pomaded hair and groomed moustache, whitened sideburns and temples, and a white lower lip inherited from the the bolder make-ups of historical ring clowns. He pulls magical lights from his case to illuminate the arena, then conducts us in a clapping warm-up. The routine is dotted with gags and mime work that entertain, but could aim for a more powerful pay-off. Lorenz’ energy is middling today, and I recall that he was named as one of the men who stayed up to ensure the tent stayed secure against the winds and rain.
Once the audience and stage are prepared, a parade of red, black, white – and plenty of sparkles – sets the tone of glamour and eclectic feats, showing snippets of each performer’s speciality, including some ebullient ensemble Chinese pole work from the bounding Timbuktu Tumblers.
The first act is Romy Michael as a glittering spider-woman, who spins a cylinder, 4 hoops, and then whirling squares of fabric upon her feet, as smooth as the criminal suggested by the instrumental Michael Jackson interpretation that backs her. She tosses the cloths between her hands and feet, then keeps them dancing as she is hoisted towards the roof of the tent on a diamanté chain.
The mood and the tent lighten for Mr N (Raul Nadler) and his cheerful Jack Russell, Speedy, who perform a routine that shows power roles reversing so Speedy ends up as top dog, to a traditional circus march and clashing cymbals that raise the energy and heighten the gently comic content.
Transitions are slick and fast paced, between the acts and between the accompanying soundtracks. The two dancing girls (Adi Diaz and…?) take on the presentational role that reminds me of old tv gameshows, dressed in beautiful costumes from Dianne Kelly and Mr Suhe-Bator. Diaz’ choreography keeps the routine flowing smoothly between the rounds of Toni Nivotny’s knife throwing, with wife Nicol strapped to the board in the face of ever increasing danger levels.
Domestic animals are again brought into the ring, this time the two Percheron horses of the Borissov Family. Riders dance, handstand, jump rope and somersault on the backs of the massive trotting animals, and Barrett highlights for the audience the difficulty of the final trick, as Boris Borissov performs a backwards somersault from the rump of one moving horse to the other.
By contrast, the next animals up are the diminutive budgerigars trained and presented by Barrett. The octogenarian keeps up a narrative patter that lends apparent intention to the budgies behaviour as the quaintly named birds hop about on seesaws, hoops, tunnels and ladders; Cyril causes well directed chaos that looks thoroughly natural.
It’s also Barrett’s patter that gives amusement value to the ‘acrocats’ in the second half. The athletic troupe of rescued kitties is presented by the silent Nora and Rosiline of the Borissovs, and sits top of the bill for its novelty and internet-is-for-cats cuteness.
The first half ends with a Wheel of Death act (somewhat confusingly announced as a German Wheel, presumably because Duo Galaxy, who perform in it, hail from Germany). This is the first time I’ve seen a Wheel of this construction, with one circular cage far smaller than the other. Only one man (Markus Köllner) performs on the spinning rig, powering its revolutions with his feet and with assistance from his ground bound wife Gabi. It doesn’t have the same impact as the 2-man versions, although I’d be intrigued to see if this design could be used by two in a more novel manner. Audience physiology is harnessed to increase the thrill of the act, as we’re encouraged to clap, raise our hands above our heads, and scream.
After the interval, an equestrian pas de deux opens and, though both horses and human companions seem unsettled – perhaps an effect of last night’s storm – the horseback partner acrobalance from Boris and Rosiline is carried off hitchless.
A highlight of the show is the original aerial slapstick routine created by Alex the Fireman (Alexandru Lupu). A ladder is rigged from a central pivot and, when the rigging is accidentally set alight, Alex must use all his excellent balance and aerial expertise to put things right. Complete with well timed sound effects, this act demonstrates huge creativity and comic understanding. That Alex has the look of a desert toughened wiry marine makes the performed incompetence even funnier.
Mongolian contortionist Odka begins her signature bottle act in a mermaid costume that has great potential as a concept if a consistent sinuosity of movement can be maintained. As one of only two foot archers currently working in the UK, Odka creates an excellent impression aiming and firing arrows at a target while inverted in a handstand.
A crafty bit of direction from David Hibling styles the Timbuktu Tumblers as the Jellicle Cats of Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ 1980s musical theatre hit, which sits in keeping with the anniversary theme and leads brilliantly into the real felines who follow. The choreography is strongly timed to the music, and includes hoop diving and a variety of human pyramids, all performed with the troupe’s regular charisma.
A fiesta themed hat-juggling routine from Rafael Gil takes a new direction as Mr Lorenz butts in and shines with his own juggling of clubs, rings and pingpong balls. The well-acted reactions of Gil, Barrett and the ring-hands add layers to the entertainment, and finally Gil is left to finish with a set of uv clubs tossed to a fast electro fiddle jig.
Brazilian aerialist Alex Michaels brings a sense of personal peril unusual in British big tops, as he performs at the top of the tent with no safety lunge. He swings between two trapezes, the way Léotard invented the form 160 years ago, then performs a 10-ring skywalk, slipping in the added element of drama coined by the Burger Sisters.
Bringing the show full circle, Mr Lorenz closes the space by packing away the shining lights one more into his travelling case, and all that’s left is the applause. 30 years on since the clown character Zippo gave his name to a circus of his own, a special applause is reserved for company founder, Martin Burton, for developing his show to the high level it enjoys today.