Wolverhampton, 1st April 2014
Arriving at one of the best known names in British circus history, I wondered how the new 21st Century show would fare. Keeping the traditional visuals of a great white big top and red military buttoned uniforms – as well as an unthemed compilation of acts for the programme – Billy Smart’s have indeed managed to produce an excellent modern circus that kept the audience rapt throughout.
Tinkling carnivalesque music pipes lightly into the large concession tent, where strings of coloured bulbs and St. George’s Cross flags float over the neat stands that offer popcorn, candy floss, hot food, drinks and flashing coloured toys. Passing over a clean layer of fresh sawdust into the big top, we are taken past a blue velvet gallery of framed images from the show, and our tickets are taken with a smile.
Large cuddly raffle prizes are displayed amid the low haze over the ring, red carpeted to match the red canvas lining of the chapiteau, and the band stage is stylishly lit with red neon tubing over the stairs and archways, and a large screen projecting digital messages to the incoming audience. Ringmistress Yasmine Smart – granddaughter of the circus’ founder Billy – coos that the show will soon begin, and her warm voice is met with like appreciation from the crowd.
Gentle clown Jonny Bogino appears with the subtle make-up and dress that allow contemporary artistes to communicate a shared humanity with their audience; he draws us in with his ingenuous spirit as he sits to read a large book in the centre of the ring. As Jonny reads to himself, the contents of the book appear on the screen, and Yasmine narrates the glorious history of Billy Smart’s, inviting us to ‘Leave your worries outside and come into our world.’ I’m impressed by the seamless way the technology of today is used to hearken back to the circus’ heritage.
The pace of the opening that introduces the company in their diverse costumes is tame, and some of the front-facing postures fall flat to those seated around the sides of the ring, but it leads smoothly into a skipping act from members of the Asadullin Troupe. The live orchestra bring extra magic to the onstage acts, honed well to the timings and transitions taking place in the ring below, even though we never clearly see the musicians.
Caroline Seeds appears next in a pink infused haze and, as the orchestra slip cleverly from one instrumental cover to the next, her elegant static trapeze act steps up a gear into some daring swinging, ending with a crowd pleasing neck-spin back down to the ring.
As the stage-hands re-rig, naughty Johnny discovers a remote control for the lights, and keeps us all amused with his wilful disobedience of the Yasmine in that age-old relationship between clown and ringmaster. He is genuine in the games he plays, which naturally endear him to us all (and the kids love his injection of Gangnam Style!).
The energy ramps up again as Germaine Delbosq roars into the ring on a Honda Rebel motorbike. It becomes a novel trinka for her fast-paced foot-juggling; a glistening black and silver cylinder, and various sizes of silver balls are tossed between feet and hands, followed by a giant skull and crossbones die and, as the lights darken, a blazing cross of fire. Delbosq presents a truly rock star act with her studded leather and windswept hairstyle.
Another seamless mood-change in sound and lighting takes us into the ethereal futuristic world of Alina Eskina’s unique cube spinning act, which mesmerised me when I first saw it in 2009. Her shy smile and floaty feminine gown belie her strength, as Eskina moves between manipulating a large frame in the ring and manoeuvring around an aerial rig; a dramatic ankle spin is short-lived, but topped with a jaw-grip spin inside her hanging silver structure.
Jonny distracts us from the ensuing set-change as he hunts for a young volunteer to assist him onstage and, in another nod to the circus past, the orchestra riff on Entrance of The Gladiators. The bandstand is transformed into a retro American diner that provides the backdrop for an exuberant trampoline number from the members of The Flying Aces, and their five bodies juggle themselves in and out of windows and onto the roof with such good humour one can’t help but feel joyful. There are some well-played moments of slapstick and clowning too, as the young acrobats perfectly fill their Happy Days-style teenage personae, and it is the perfect feel-good act on which to finish the first half.
The facilities are clean and well-maintained, and we re-enter the top with shining eyes and candyfloss, to watch a tiny girl win a cuddly monkey bigger than she is in the raffle. The flying net is rigged to go, and the Flying Aces climb into position to the suspenseful tones of a Bond theme. Their line-up is different from last year, and comprises Sebastian Gutierrez, Craig Litherland, Alex Mannering, Liam Millichap and Mizuki Osaki. The performers are bursting with charm and energy, and add some surprises to the flying act with a launch from a Russian Swing to the catcher’s arms. A couple of falls make us catch our breath, but we are reassured with smiles and continuation, until the troupe’s jubilant somersaulting dismounts.
The next act sees Delbosq return with Argentinian partner, Indian Spirit (aka Luciano Gabriel Carmona), for a lively display of percussive skill. In high heels and red robes, Indian Spirit welcomes us amigos to his party, and proceeds to astound us with his whirling silver bolas and flame-filled finale. He is a great showman with clear pride in his work, as he whoops and winks, bolas whipping at his hair.
After another chirpy clowning interlude (which is placed a bit close to the ringside for my viewing angle), the Asadullin Troupe take the stage for their teeterboard act. They don’t have the charisma of some of the earlier acts and I find my attention drawn more than once to Jonny boogying on the band steps. A female flyer is launched onto the top of a two-man tower, and a young man onto a perch seat, then un-lunged acrobats turn somersaults as they are flung from the pad. The landings are not always clean, and I’m not convinced they are enjoying themselves. There is no Russian Bar, so I wonder if the troupe are dealing with an injury.
By contrast, the adagio hand balances of the X-Treme Brothers trio command my full attention as they create a spellbinding variety of poses on their tiny platform. They are perfectly synchronised in the sharp, clean choreography, demonstrating remarkable strength that makes their superb control appear easy. The understated red costumes add to the perfect simplicity of this act, and their stunning focus doesn’t require salutes and nods to the audience.
An Olympic style parade of international flags marks the end of the show, passing under the inflatable clown that delivers one final giant nod to the circus’ past – and ties things together nicely in relation to the opening.
The variety and placement of acts is excellent, as is the pace of transitions. As I leave, I comment to my companion, ‘Well that was a really great circus’ – and several passing families stop to agree.