Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London; 6th December 2016
Part grotto, part pleasure beach, part German Christmas market, the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland has come a long way in its 10 years. When the event began in 2007, it was as an ice rink and a few stalls in one of London’s most famous parks. Now, the six week long stand includes over 100 rides, food, drink, live music and shows ranging from television’s Sooty to Nutcracker on Ice. And, of course, there’s the circus.
Zippos Circus have been a fixture amid the fairy lights since 2009, presenting a family show during the day, and more daredevil fare in the evening. For the last two years, their home has been the largest tent in the UK, the Megadome (although, this week, that title is being challenged by Moscow State Circus’s new venue at Star City in Birmingham). We know, though, that size isn’t everything – in the circus, it’s atmosphere that matters. The foyer is decorated with white branches, frosted with lights, and a single concession stand sells popcorn and candyfloss. This, the tent seems to announce, is a smooth London affair, as we stand in roped queues as if to enter Madame Tussauds or attend a VIP nightclub.
Velvet curtained booths line the back of the arena, and the same soft red covers the ringside chairs. King poles are decked with icy christmas tree lights, and a circular flooring of board sits with no ring curb or fence to separate it from the crowds. Beams of crossing light create pink shafts of swirling illumination above, while performers, smiling and courteous, offer popcorn, lights, and spinning plates from a twinkling red bag, well tuned in to the children in the audience.
The 45 minute running time is an excellent length that satisfies with a variety of strong acts and no need for weaker filler material. Particularly in this Wonderland environment, where so much else competes for attention, it seems canny to provide just this carefully allotted portion, so visitors will have their appetites whetted and want to sample other circus offerings when they encounter them in future.
Traditional tri-part presenter roles, rarely seen any more in UK circus, of Ringmaster (Paul Winston), Whiteface (Ancsa Konyot) and August (David Konyot) are played with panache and contemporary humour, with David’s cleverly clowned musical interruptions providing a thread of structure between the physical skills acts. In yellow tails, a bumblebee striped waistcoat and blue hat, he is a huffy-puffy, chuntering character whose natural twinkle occasionally wins through in the mischievous routines of physical comedy, rhythmic humour and good-for-a-groan dad jokes.
Traditional carols are given a production treatment that makes them seem like the epic score of an adventure game or movie, and a parade of lights segues into a tumbling troupe in neon brights with balletic girls in white. The Kenya Boys deliver a fast moving sequence of varied pyramids; Heidi Mary (Heidi Latva) combines roller skating and dance trapeze, soaring into the darkness above then sliding over the floor in front of us in a jubilant celebration of movement and skill; Alex the Fireman (Alexandru Lupu) presents his superb comic aerial act as seen in the Zippos summer season Celebration.
Serious faced Nicholas Souren is a juggler in jazz mobster pinstripe and spats, who sends balls, clubs, then rings into the air. A fumbled throw brings out a smile and makes him a warmer presence, and wife Kimberley assists in a nice touch of swing dance before tossing more bright rings into his cascade, bringing the total up to eight.
Magician Richard Cadell (yes, he of Sooty fame!) presents a slick series of illusions with silver shrouded boxes and elegant fairytale contraptions that make people appear and disappear, and his arrival on a motorbike presages the finale on a high wire from a young couple whose names I can’t trace. The petrol driven ending also signals the later show, Cirque Berserk Legend, with its splitting Globe of Death from the Lucius Troupe.
This year, while the National Theatre have harnessed the skills of aerial director Gwen Hales to lift their winter production of Peter Pan from the stage, Cirque Berserk have created their own Neverland inside the circus ring. Blue light, rousing drums and dancing girls swirling skirts in ocean greens all accompany dragons, mermaids, and steampunk pirate peddlars through a fantasy that places us in another world. This differs from the fantasia of Cirque Du Soleil though, as Cirque Berserk revels in the human reality of the performers before us, sweating, smiling, grasping and tossing; this is Spielberg’s Hook to Soleil’s Disneylike animation.
The Tropicana Troupe perform Russian bar in tight, wet look pants; Stefan Nikolov of Duo Stefaneli proudly steps through the air in a circle above the ring, moving into an operatically paced aerial silks routine with wife Neli ; Luciano Gabriel Carmona whirls his bolas at the ground; José and Gaby (José Miguel Martínez and Gabriela diaz Cardozo) dance a hand-to-hand adagio, costumed straight out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Between the acts, that blend one into another with no introduction, interludes of folk inspired music gives this world tropical, latin and baltic connections, with dancers waving tambourines, ribbons, or hoops as befit the incoming characters. There is no narrative, but the music takes an ominous turn when a white manga beast heralds growling black and red dune buggies and Germaine Delbosq’s footjuggling atop a static Harley Davidson. The soundtrack lends the act a vibe of danger it wouldn’t otherwise possess until it reaches its own crescendo of flaming props, finishing with a cross whirled and rotated on both horizontal and vertical axes.
The sound board is also used to heighten the impact of acts, emphasising the knives and burning brands hurled by Toni Novotny towards his assistant Rosey. The speed of transitions and the dramaturgy of the selected routines are great, building and releasing ever increasing tensions. I’m kept interested as the four natural elements are highlighted through the acts, culminating in a fifth power, the petrol driven machines. As the Lucius Team motorcyclists enter the Globe of Death on its raised dais, the engine noise, the rattling of the metal cage, and the smell of fuel compete for our senses. Racing around the interior of the globe, two riders circle a standing female, then two more riders replace her as the globe splits in two, and they finally become a light show of their own.
Also running at 45 minutes, the programme gives just the right amount of spectacle and sensation to send audiences back out into the illuminated wonderland of fairground rides and festive spirit. The circus bar in the tent next door features posters of famous American acts, and the surrounding stalls are branded with a Midway theme. I will own up to never having been very keen on fairgrounds, but the multiple magics of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland has me converted, for Christmas, at least.