Roll up, roll up for the best show in town! With a wall of dramatic drumming driving Circus 1903 ever onwards and upwards, we are treated to dangerous dancing on a silver thread, exploits of equilibrium acrobatics, wizards of the wheel, elastic dislocationists, impalement arts, mid-air marvels, mammoth mastodons and prodigious pachyderms, daring and derring-do undertaken with precision and split-second timing, and more, so much more, writes Michael Holland.

The auditorium was a-tremble with ooohs and aaahs, and gasps and giggles as we watched feats we thought were impossible before we saw them performed right before our very eyes to a backbeat of powerful percussion. The Sensational Sozonov balanced on wheels that balanced on drums, that balanced on, well something not fit for standing on, never mind risking your life on!

Circus 1903 recreates the golden age of circus, when the travelling show would pitch up in town and provide everything the good folk needed in the way of entertainment with acts that had been developed by generation after generation of families, always honing, always improving on what went before, always pushing to go that little bit higher, or leaping that little bit further into the unknown while hoping your partner will catch you.

This is a frenetic, non-stop extravaganza that finds respite only in the sections when Queenie and Karanga, the magnificent elephants, trundle out on to the stage to a wide-eyed audience. Slowly we work out that there are three puppeteers operating the giant Queenie, and one inside Karanga, plus a team of ‘handlers’ who between them bring these beautiful beasts to life.

But star of the show for me is magician David Williamson as ringmaster Willy Whipsnade bringing the performers into one cohesive troupe, working together to give us the ‘greatest show on earth’. Williamson performed amazing close up magic in amongst the audience before the show but his greatest feat was during the performance when he manufactured the best audience participation I’ve ever seen with his Training of Wild Animals section, which was basically getting young kids aged from 6 – 10 on stage to help with his comedy and trickery. – We all fell in love with Marlena. One boy even had the joy of custard pie-ing his own father for our delectation!

Circus 1903 is on at the Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX from 19th December – 5th January. Times: 7.30pm; 11am and 3pm matinees. Admission: £25 – £99.50. Phone: 0203 879 9555 

www.southbankcentre.co.ukwww.circus1903.com 

Photos: Manuel Harlan