Our Circus 1903 experience began in the Clore Ballroom where we could hear the booming bass reverberating from upstairs, like the beating heart of the circus getting warmed up for the upcoming spectacle. And what a spectacle it was!
“Ooh! What’s that boom boom mummy?” Our toddler asked as we took the lift up towards the auditorium and I started to wonder to myself how could they have possibly made the inside of the Royal Festival Hall look and feel like a circus.
Circus 1903 is a magical theatrical experience (with emphasis on theatrical) that celebrates the world of the circus with plenty of razzle dazzle, sparkles and turn of the century music. Think Circque du Soleil meets Dumbo with a magical twist. As we took our seats we were greeted by the main attraction of the show, the cohesive entertainer that brings it all together, ringmaster Willy Whipsnade played by David Williamson in a warm and charismatic manner. Our little boy was delighted by the slight of hand magic tricks David performed for him before the beginning of the show. Having interviewed David at an earlier stage, we were excited to see him perform as ringmaster once more.
Soon enough the rhythmic pounding of hammers on tent pegs transport us back in time and introduce us to the busy life life within a turn of the century circus and gives us the unique opportunity of finally fulfilling those childhood dreams of running away with the circus.
And what a delight to have our son pulled up on stage as part of the performance! He enjoyed it as much as the audience.
After we raise the tent, it is time to meet the troupe of vintage attired acrobats, talented tricksters, jugglers, freaks and aerialists as well as the performing elephants brought to us by the brilliant War Horse puppetry team. It was this superlative puppetry skill that brought the animals to life in such a moving way that captivated our young Londoner’s imagination the most.
But before we get to the elephants there are a variety of different entertaining acts which had the toddler covering his eyes in fear and excitement combined as he exclaimed ‘mummy he’s falling down’ several times. Fortunately nobody falls.
There is also lots of opportunities for audience participation (which had the husband cringing and sinking into his chair whilst the little one stretched his arm as far up in the air as he could). Many young audience members are selected and invited on stage to help with various magic tricks to everyone’s amusement and entertainment. This young Londoner was one of the lucky few and was surprisingly brave to go on stage and become part of the show.
The Freakshow interlude was another favourite where the Bearded Lady happened to be a bloke sitting in front of us, the snake charmer has been devoured by her python and it’s up to our showman, Willy Whipsnade, to resurrect her. The Elastic Dislocationist from Ethiopia had us stretching our backs out instinctively after her twisty contortions saw her bend into shapes which looked unnatural, like a human string knotted around itself.
Our best moment of the show were the Elephants; Queenie and her playful offspring Peanut. The Circus 1903 elephants are brought to life by a team of UK-based puppeteers including Mikey Brett (Peanut), Nyron Levy, Chris Milford, James Donovan (Queenie), Amelie Leroy (Elephant Trainer) and Will Palmer (swing). This experience was breathtaking and I wish there was a show with just Queenie and Peanut as the protagonists. Our little boy and the audience around us were completely transfixed from the moment we spotted Queenie ambling across the stage and I certainly felt as if I were in the presence of elephants.The puppetry skill is so powerfully moving that we could almost hear the elephants breathing. Plus if you are sitting close enough to the front, you may well get soaked by the elephants’ trunk as they pause to have a drink and spray some of their water with the audience.
Circus 1903 is magnificently entertaining peppered with the right amount of nostalgia and humour to make it a wonderfully festive show for the whole family (although the later show times may be a bit of a challenge for younger children).
Circus 1903 is on at Southbank Centre until 2 January 2022 and tickets start at £25 and can be booked here. There is also currently a special offer on TodayTix where you can get them from £15 so do check both options.