“Bye ‘eck,” said the man sitting next to me. “Ah’ve seen some stuff ‘ere, but that were fantastic!” And this was only the interval. I was surprised he could speak at all given he’d been cheering himself hoarse for the last ten minutes, delighted by the circus that is the culmination of act one of the New Vic’s current extravaganza.
Director Theresa Heskins has solved a problem that circus has been trying to tackle for years: how to incorporate narrative into what is otherwise a random series of spectacles. She’s done it by starting with a story about a circus, the first circus, founded by Major Philip Astley, a carpenter’s son from Newcastle-under-Lyme, who rose through the ranks as a dragoon in the Seven Years’ War, was given his commission by King George III in person, and promptly left the army to seek his fortune and, despite his accent, become a gentleman. Fat chance.
In 1768, demonstrations of equestrian skill were one of the main public entertainments. Astley was an excellent horseman so he started to perform on the south bank of the Thames. But he had rivals and, in a contest that would delight students of dialectical materialism, over a period of 30 years the concept of circus developed, collapsed – an unfortunate fire – and was reinvented.
It’s a good story and well told by some good actors, circus performers and a band. I particularly liked, well, everybody really. They’re all working hard, and if I have a quibble, it’s that the script is a bit pedestrian which is made up for by the jeu d’esprit of the performances. There is an extremely funny scene in a marsh where the dialogue is really just moving the plot on, but the whole thing is hilarious because the actors make the sounds of their squelching feet every time they move.
Astley is played by Nicholas Richardson who, judging by his credit list in the programme, is a relative newcomer. But he strides that stage like a younger, taller, more muscular Dominic West and manages to look even younger off stage than he does on. I’ll drink what he’s drinking.
There’s music, too, written by James Atherton who composes the music for the New Vic Christmas shows, and was MD on Around the World in 80 Days – which is going to Broadway, you heard it here first. I have to mention the musical director here, too. Faz Shah is an amazing violinist, and beat boxer. An odd combination, you might think, but not for an Oldham lad who went to the Royal Northern College of Music. It’s also his first job as a theatre MD and he does it really well. By the end we were nearly dancing.
By the time you read this, the show will have ended its run. But judging by the standing ovation at the end and the full houses even in this hot weather, and despite the size of the cast, it’s the kind of stuff we like and I bet it will be back. Bye ‘eck it will.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor