See spectacular circus shows and cabarets in London

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Roll up, roll up! Alongside its usual fantastic theatre offering, London becomes a big top: home to some of the very best circus and spectacle.

Ever since Philip Astley invented the modern form of circus back in 1768, the capital has remained synonymous with circus entertainment. Astley was famous for his trick horse riding, but needed something to keep the crowd amused during the pauses between demonstrations, so he brought in jugglers, acrobats, tightrope walkers and a clown.

Of course, our contemporary circus shifts the emphasis from the use of animals to sheer human virtuosity. Cirque du Soleil are the world’s leading modern circus company, and frequent visitors to London – their show Kurios heads to the Royal Albert Hall in 2023. Here’s our guide to all the high-wire thrills.

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Join La Clique

La Clique is now the show proudly associated with The Famous Spiegeltent: the pair have travelled the world together, wowing festivals everywhere from Edinburgh and Melbourne to Montreal, New York, Stockholm and Paris. La Clique has also had several hit London runs, including winning an Olivier Award for its West End stint.

This spectacular show brilliantly mixes circus with cabaret, comedy and music, creating a unique and always surprising experience that nods to Britain’s variety show heritage while also finding new ways to wow its audience. There’s plenty of risqué naughtiness, too, so leave the kids at home for this one!

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Marvel at Circus 1903

Circus 1903 combines all the thrills of the big top with family-friendly fun. There's plenty to watch out for: the ringmaster leads contortionists, jugglers, Russian Bar and Rola Bola artists, as well as strong men that lift unbelievable weights. Plus, there's lifesize elephant puppets that appear throughout the show. Go back in time to the Golden Age of circus this winter.

Kurios - 750 - LT

Watch Cirque du Soleil fly at Kurios

Cirque du Soleil return to the Royal Albert Hall in 2023 with a European premiere. This year, the Canadian circus-dance company present Kurios, an homage to Victorian curiosities and discovering new ideas before your very eyes. The Royal Albert Hall is also reinforced with additional steel to house larger Cirque tricks. Open your mind and be taken aback by the wonders of Cirque du Soleil.

Head to the Underbelly Festival

London’s favourite pop-up festival returned in 2022. This year, it took place in two places in the centre of the capital: Earl’s Court and Cavendish Square. Both played host to exciting live entertainment, plus top-notch street food and outdoor bars, creating an irresistible summer festival atmosphere.

Earl’s Court featured the famous Upside Down Purple Cow tent, while the West End’s Cavendish Square saw the majestic return of The Famous Spiegeltent.

The spiegeltent model has a special heritage. It means “mirror tent” in Dutch, so called because this luxurious portable tent originally featured mirrors and stained glass, when it was pioneered in the late 19th century to showcase travelling acts and provide entertainment in towns that didn’t have a dance hall or other large venue.

The Cavendish Square Underbelly hosted a provocative new show from drag burlesque and circus sensations Yummy. The Melbourne-based company began in 2015, and soon developed a cult following thanks to its empowering presentation of gender fluidity and queer artistry – along with vivid aesthetics, subversive comedy and skilful entertainment.

Yummy made their London debut at Underbelly in 2019 and are now back with new show Iconic, which both celebrates and skewers cultural icons and legendary superstars.

The Yummy cast featured the likes of Hannie Helsden, a hula hoop whiz and burlesque luminary, plus the incredible drag artist and dancer Valerie Hex, hit singer Joni in the Moon, contortion handstand and swinging trapeze specialist Jarred Dewey, and fabulous showgirl Zelia Rose.

Ethiopian circus company Circus Abyssinia also took part. The first circus company created by and for Ethiopian artists, the amazing Circus Abyssinia first performed at a London Underbelly Festival in 2018 with their semi-autobiographical show Ethiopian Dreams. The troupe had also wowed the Edinburgh Festival and won a coveted spot on the Royal Variety Performance.

Circus Abyssinia is all about astonishing acts of physical wonder, from eye-watering contortion and hand-vaulting to world-class acrobatics, pole-climbing and fire- and club-juggling. Their wondrous set-pieces are backed by a propulsive soundtrack.

Circus Abyssinia’s show Tulu was inspired by the long-distance runner Derartu Tulu, who became the first Ethiopian woman and first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she triumphed in the 10,000 metres in 1992. Tulu also won the London and Tokyo Marathons in 2001. It’s the perfect tale to pair with a company who showcase incredible skill, speed, strength and agility displayed by trailblazing artists. Find out more about the Underbelly Festival in London.

Photo credit: Circus Abyssinia: Tulu (Photo by Waleed Shah)

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