Intu, Merry Hill; 27th October 2015
Outside it’s damp, and dark by 5pm, making the coloured lights and vibrant temptations inside the Gandey’s tent even more enticing. This is a traditional show (sans animals, as is the current fashion) and, after passing through the foyer tent with its hot and cold concessions stand, my first thrill comes from heading down the blue canvas corridor, sides crossed with bunting, to emerge into the main arena filled with feel-good modern pop music.
The scene is well set, with strings of coloured bulbs threading beneath the red and white tent ceiling. A dark blue cupola makes the top seem open to the night sky, while the ornately painted drapes of the ring-doors glitter in gold, and the pre-show lighting splits the air into hazily jewelled beams.
The show begins with swirling lights and the upbeat energy of Pharrel William’s Happy, strangely at odds with the ambling solo entrance of Chico Rico, the dapper clown. When he finds himself alone in a spotlight, with the music changed to Send In The Clowns, I am intrigued by the unusual start, but ringmaster Robert Price soon appears to cheer up the lonely fellow with ‘a little bit of circus magic’, and the company burst into the ring, dressed in costumes that play up the more popular imagery of circus clowns.
Thrill number two comes with the first act. Las Chicas Morales (Jacquie and Gina Morales, daughters of Chico Rico) are a globe balancing duo, who move around the ring and juggle on top of their spherical podiums, before manoevering the globes up a three-tiered ramp. I’ve read about this type of classic act but never seen it performed before, and the way the girls co-ordinate their movements to progress up the ramp together is impressive. Once they reach the top, latin fiesta music kicks in, and they each make their way back down backwards.
According to ringmaster Price, all the performers in this show have have won awards for their acts, although we never find out what these awards are. He also talks a bit about the charity that the circus supports, but it’s a little quick for me to hear properly. Later I spot one of the ushers wearing a Circus Starr t-shirt, and he tells me that the two companies are connected, so I wonder if this show feed into their children’s charity partners. Gandey World Class Productions, who produce this Thrill Circus, are also the team behind the long-running Ladyboys of Bangkok and, next year, will once again be presenting the Chinese State Circus in the UK with their new show Dynasty.
The next thrill for me is one of surprise at a novelty act of big head clowns, half costume, half puppet, who entertain us with their ‘Love Story’ act, complete with googly eyes and flopping tongues. Their starred-and-striped apparel and yankee music choices tickle me too – don’t we all like to think of Americans as a bunch of clowns at times?
The first half also includes a ‘kiss it better’ routine from Chico Rico, involving audience participation and a potato, a Frozen themed number from Romy Bauer, who presents some backbending and splits inside a perspex bubble while snow sprinkles into the ring, and a highwire act from Marco Polo. Introduced as ‘The World’s Most Eccentric Performer’, he enters in a white mariachi outfit, climbs to his platform, and dons a sparkly black sombrero. His short stature adds to the feeling of height as he crosses the wire with a long balance pole. He removes his jacket for a running, bouncing, second cross, and then removes his hat for the third part, taking a chair out onto the wire to not only sit on, but stand on top of.
There is nothing about his performance that I would call particularly eccentric and, in a world of YouTube where incredible things can be seen at the flick of a mouse, the old-school label seems rather obviously disingenuous. His balance skills, however, are very good and, when he attempts another classic trick in crossing the wire with baskets on his feet, a slipped step that results in a full body grab for the wire appears so comical that at first I think it is a deliberate part of the act for building tension. The behaviour of the ringhands makes me doubt myself though, and a slight hobble when Marco returns to ground level, after completing the trick on a second attempt, make me think perhaps this one was for real. Bravo for continuing if so!
While the Wheel Of Death is rigged, Chico Rico tries to ‘help’. He’s told to sweep up the mess of potatoes, but instead finds a remote control that appears to affect the music, playing with the sound and lights until Duo Sifolinis are ready. The Bulgarian pair, Nikolay Karakolev and Ivan Mladenov, spin the double wheel device, fully suspended above the ring, and build quickly to a series of jumps. There’s a blindfold, there are skipping ropes. Every stumble sets my heart racing, but they continue unscathed. A small, shocked, voice behind me pipes up, ‘I just can’t believe these grown-ups!’
An announcement that Nikolay is the only person in the world to walk the wheel of death on his hands sets my cynicism radar off again and, sure enough, my first Google search finds someone else doing the same. The skill is still remarkable, and would be just as remarkable without the unfounded claim to uniqueness.
The first half has made me wonder if it’s the production’s energy or my own that lacks that special zing. The thrill atmosphere is there in the setting, the lights and sound, but I’m not getting it from the performers half the time. Perhaps, with the big spangly set-up, my expectations were too high? The queue for the 8 portaloos matches the queue for the concessions stand, and my burger is disappointingly overcooked. Luckily, the second half is more consistent in its calibre,
Three sets of aerial straps are rigged across the stage, and a trio of two men and a woman perform some rolls up and down the fabric straps. This time my internet search has failed me, and I can’t find the name of the troupe. The announcement sounded something like Trio Zetsimekov. Perhaps someone who knows can fill me in! The girl in the central around on her arm in a wrist loop, hearkening back to Lillian Leitzel’s famous showpiece, but never gains enough momentum for a complete rotation today.
Chico Rico creates a fantastic boxing ring act with the help of some audience volunteers. His demeanor is soft, sweet and unthreatening, and he easily gets them dancing – and cartwheeling – before moving them into place for the main event. This is no sterile faux-clowning, this is genuine laugh-out-loud on-the-edge entertainment.
The next act is hula hooper Emi Velkova, a strong performer with great energy who clearly enjoys both her act of fast paced dance moves and nightclub sexiness, and her audience, connecting with us as she manipulates up to 6 hoops, transitions into UV, and surprises us with a twist as she comes to lift her final pile of props. Chico Rico comes on as Michael Jackson, and is warned that it’s nearly Halloween so he shouldn’t do thriller… Of course, would any clown listen to a warning like that? The lights go green, zombies appear from all around, which transitions smoothly into the ‘Skeleton Warriors’ acrobatic troupe, fully costumed so we never see their faces as they bound into a series of group poses.
The final act is the Dynamite Riders in the Globe of Death, a giant ball of a cage in which three men whizz around each other on motorbikes. My teeth grit in a tense grin from the moment the first bike begins to circle an unmounted rider, stood in the centre of the globe with his safety helmet IN HIS HAND. This IS a thrill. The pumping notes of Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You seem the perfect soundtrack to end the evening.