Review from: Riverfront, Newport; 22nd Sept 2023
As the cast of Cirque: The Greatest Show draw us towards their finale, I’m standing and dancing in the rows of seats along with most other audience members I can see. The energy and vibe has built as the show has gone on and now, by the end of the second act, I’m having a thoroughly good time. The cast of fifteen is made up of singers, dancers, and circus artists, whose separate skills are combined into a scaled-up cabaret, produced by the Entertainers group to tour theatre venues around the UK.
A loose narrative frame presents the colourful acts as if they are television content beamed into the black and white home of a surprise competition winner, played by mime artist and magician Christian Lee. There is no real dramatic arc, but the comic sections provide a contrast between the song and circus numbers, and reengage with us as an audience through direct interaction. (Although, due to the scale and end-on layout of the venue, this connection doesn’t reach to all areas of the theatre equally).
I do wonder if the concept of a new television transforming the character’s life is graspable to a generation who have grown up with portable screens that providing 24-7 access to content accompanying them everywhere. During the interval I buy a programme (£10. Eep) and a light-up pink wand to take home for my 2-yr old (also £10. Eep again). I overhear the performer who sells them to me chatting with an older couple in the front row, explaining that because young people now get virtually all their entertainment from screens, this is a rare opportunity for them to experience live performance. He makes a good point, and it must be this excitement at live performance that convinces Lee’s mime character to leap into the world of colour for himself at the end of the show.
I have to admit, I had been expecting something slightly different from this production, and I’m not quite sure why. It took me a while to recognise the variety format, because I had imagined that this was going to be something more like a jukebox musical, where all the component parts tell a story. The promotional material I had seen included the phrase ‘smash-hit circus musical‘, and described it as telling a story, but I can see that the current version of the webpage uses the more accurate terms ‘variety spectacular‘ and ‘brand new variety extravaganza‘. I guess the branding has evolved as the tour has gone on to more accurately represent the show. I’m putting this here just in case anyone else is reading expecting something with more of a plot too, because I would have been able to relax and enjoy myself a lot sooner if I’d understood the format from the start instead of trying to make sense of something that was never intended to be storytelling!
The songs are all taken from big name film musicals – The Greatest Showman, Hairspray, Rocket Man, Mamma Mia, Moulin Rouge – which makes sense as they appear from the telly. The three singers are of a high calibre. Smooth-voiced show owner Max Fox takes on the lower male parts, while newcomer Wesley Bromley takes on the higher ones with panache. Kristel Herrera oozes charisma and joy as the female of the trio – and in her own solo moments, bringing real drama and emotion to the classic ‘Movie in my Mind‘ (ok, so Miss Saigon doesn’t have an official movie version, but it did have a cinematic release of the 25th anniversary stage production, so I guess that justifies its inclusion within the screen-world of the show).
Top energy comes from the two male dancers, Rhys Richard and Stephen Strain, who seem to be having the most fun on stage and enliven every routine they are involved in with their accomplished breakdance and street-style moves. This can create an awkward contrast to the less enthusiastic cast members at times, and there are sections where seven onstage performers seems a little thin for the spectacle we’ve been promised. At others, the sparkle of sequins and rhinestones bedazzling the costumes, and the swirl of lights around the auditorium create visual delight.
My favourite of the circus acts is Pascal Haering‘s Cyr wheel. It can be a bit of cliché to say a circus artist makes their skill look easy, but Haering turns the presentation of ease into an art, demonstrating masterfully relaxed control of his wheel. He also presents an impressive spinning cube act to close the first half, complimented by a graceful aerial cube duo from Shonagh Leatherbarrow and Dione Hassell. Leatherbarrow also has a main act, giving us a sinuous handbalance contortion (although the music remains firmly upbeat), and Hassell is the dance captain. A third aerialist is Jennifer Van Gool, who presents some moves on a glittering chandelier, and who also works with partner Tom Barrandon in a quick change routine that includes some very effective and unusual transitions (I particularly appreciate the gown that appears in a puff of smoke). The balance is weighted towards more changes from her than from him, but his final comedy appearance makes me grin. Barrandon’s own solo act is bounce juggling on a moveable stair, with short flashes of high numbers and some enjoyable patterns of six. Here, the ensemble of can-can clad dancers works well to enhance the spectacle of his solo spot.
Other circus acts come from The Skating Bauers (Romy Bauer and Joel Hatton) – who whirl around on a platform while Herrera and Bromley give a rendition of ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat‘. It’s hard to know how to respond when Hatton gestures for applause while the singers are still in the middle of singing to each other, but all get a well deserved clap at the end – and Andy Wakeford, who presents a dramatic fire performance, twisting and throwing his double ended staffs or sparking straps in time to the rhythmic instrumental music (maybe the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack? In that vein anyway). There are also a strong range of magic tricks presented by Lee, from variety standards to contemporary classics. I laugh out loud more than once at his surprising gag endings.
A final mention goes to Jess Walker, who comes into her own with comic acting talents as a swooning teenage girl – humourous, if not entirely au fait with modern sensibilities – during Bromley’s rendition of ‘It Takes Two‘, and to the un-credited stagehand who develops a liking for audience entertainment after cameos as a delivery guy, a skittle and well, a stagehand.
Cirque: The Greatest Show brings a number of talented performers together, combining those at the top of their game with other less established artistes. Everything is family friendly (and there are a number of young people in the audience tonight who aren’t expressing any of the obvious signs of boredom parents fear so much), and all is geared towards a feel-good finale that will let you leave the theatre with a spring in your step and a buzz in your heart.