The turn of the last century was the Golden Age of the circus when all our expectations of red and white striped fabric, strings of lights, nail-biting hire wire, cycling trapeze and the top hatted ring-master were born. Circus 1903 sets out to bring all that magic back, (minus the horses and wild animals), without a storyline or theme, just a series of classic circus acts tied together by Willy Whipsnade the ringmaster.

The Royal Festival Hall could never be a Big Top smelling of sawdust but the company and design conjured up a family friendly cabaret night with a big heart and truly festive feel. Highlights included Ethiopian Senayet Asefa Amare, ‘The Elastic Dislocationist’ with mind-boggling flexibility that included running round and round her own head in a backwards crab. The knife throwing act in ‘Deadly Games’ was breath-taking as we watched the Brazilian hurl knives blind-folded at Aleksandra Kiedrowicz, the Polish aerialist. Her own act, ‘Lucky Moon’ was a beautiful aerial hoop dance where you almost forgot the dizzying heights of her glittering performance.

With ‘The Great Gaston’s’ juggling, giant puppet elephant and her baby, the French ‘Cycling Cyclone’, and high flying somersaults from ‘Les Incredibles’, there was plenty to wonder at so it is was a surprise to find that David Williamson’s Ring Master, Willy Whipsnade was in fact one of the highlights of the night. The seven foot tall American started the show with dry irreverence so that even the most grumpy adults were won over. When he began to pick out children to ‘help’ with his magic tricks and comedy, genuine hilarity ensued, regardless of the success or failure of the tricks. As Whipsnade told the children, the real magic is that you’ve made hundreds of people happy tonight and the applause is your reward. By this time, our cynical selves were well and truly forgotten so young and old whooped and cheered before spilling out onto the wonderful riverside of the South Bank.

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