Circus 1903

Review - Circus 1903 at the Southbank Centre

Will Longman
Will Longman

While pantos across the capital are providing the slapstick laughs, silly songs and festivities for some, it's not to everyone's tastes. The circus is something that, when done well, can transcend taste; its human nature to marvel at mind-bending, seemingly impossible performances, no matter your age, background or ability.

That's what makes Circus 1903, now running at the Southbank Centre, so great. The Royal Festival Hall fills with gasps and tension as they watch through their fingers as a man flings a blindfolded acrobat 20ft into the air, and for the split second she floats away, there really is no guarantee she will be caught.

That's the kind of danger that gets your heart racing during Circus 1903, and you get the same feeling when The Remarkable Risleys from Mongolia literally kick each other around in the air at breakneck speeds, or as contortionist Senayet Asefa Amare from Ethiopia impossibly kicks her legs around her head in a perfect circle.

And while there's a chance to recover thanks to the interludes courtesy of more-than-capable ringmaster David Williamson, your heart rate drops in disappointment at times, like when juggler Francois Borie - who manages to juggle as I have never seen - pretends to fail in his final act for the sake of a bigger payoff.

While the narrative takes us to an early 20th century big top, we far from that setting in the huge Royal Festival Hall. The venue facilitates the huge scale of this spectacle, such as the magical life-size puppet elephant Queenie plods across the stage, or the adrenaline-pumping Wheel of Death finale, which alone is worth seeing this show for.

But it does lose the intimacy of a traditional in-the-round circus, where the stakes are higher with every inch of the performers is on show. That doesn't make any of the acts any less impressive but does create a slight disconnect between performer and audience, especially in a theatre of this size.

Last year, we reported on a study that suggested that going to the theatre was as good for your heart as 30 minutes worth of cardiovascular exercise. If that's true, then the tension and danger of Circus 1903 must make the heart feel like its run a marathon. 

Circus 1903 is at the Southbank Centre until 5th January. 

Circus 1903 tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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