Oh! What a Circus! Oh! What a show!
The New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme has a long and glorious history of staging plays to celebrate the remarkable achievements of Potteries folk…from the miners of Silverdale to the twinkling toes of Stanley Matthews. But this latest show caps the lot.
It was exactly 250 years ago that Philip Astley, a Newcastle-born carpenter’s son, drew a 42-foot diameter circle on some rather marshy ground and filled it with equestrian trick-riders, acrobats and clowns. And so, circus was born.
It wasn’t quite as easy as that, of course, as Frazer Flintham’s narrative script makes abundantly clear. The story weaves its way between a host of spectacular acrobatic acts, very clever clowning and hilarious theatrical jokes. For example, the ground is so marshy, every actor crossing it punctuates their perfectly serious lines with squishy, squelchy, footstep sounds that had a full house in absolute stitches. Obviously, the Goons are alive and well and working at the New Vic.
The show simply fizzes with cracking ideas and pantomime silliness. I’d have travelled miles to see ‘Billy The Mind Reading Horse’ … wonderfully characterised by Luke Murphy who, in Lis Evan’s minimalist costume, is so appealingly horse-like, the audience oohed and aahed.
Michael Hugo’s ‘Zipper’ is at turns ‘Harry Oatcake’ a silent circus clown miming to a mournful violin, and endlessly fooling around with planks of wood like Eric Sykes. Then, he picks up a megaphone and becomes two race commentators at the same time; one of which sounds suspiciously like Peter Bromley.
But back to the plot…for there is a rather neat one!
Frazer Flintham has done an excellent job of piecing a coherent story together from the incomplete historical information we have…and has employed his fertile imagination when the facts run out.
We follow Philip Astley’s mission to provide the 18th century public with something new to ogle at. Astley’s astounding idea is to do what Wimbledon did two centuries later. Put a roof on it. Thus he can perform all year round by candlelight … in “the most exciting building in the world”.
There are plenty of pit falls (and prat falls) on the way to success. He has a dastardly circus rival (Charles Hughes, commensurately played by a shady and smarmy Jason Eddy) and who has the authorities in his pocket. The Lord Chamberlain (the endlessly versatile Michael Hugo again) will only issue one licence to perform in London and orders a Houdini-like competition to decide who should get it. Cue the escapology routine!
Debutant Nicholas Richardson’s portrayal of the world’s first ring master is – well – masterful. He has a rough look and a shiny smile. He’s also mastered the Staffordshire accent…which gives rise to a perfect running gag. (How audiences love to laugh at themselves!)
He’s an actor, and so is Danielle Bird, who plays the sweetheart he steals from Hughes. But in just eight weeks of rehearsal, they have turned themselves into wonderful acrobatic stars. Their routine together, dangling from suspended silk sheets – choreographed by Vicki Amedume – is pure professional circus. It’s an outstanding Act 1 finale that has the blood coursing. It’s all the more impressive because they are surrounded by full time circus practitioners, doing equally remarkable things.
None of this has been achieved without cost. Actor Andrew Pollard broke his foot in rehearsal and has to play King George III (and other characters) in the front row of the audience with his leg up in plaster.
Did I mention candles? Well, we all know what candles can do to a wooden building and there are records of one of Astley’s amphitheatres burning to the ground. I was waiting for the moment. How were they going represent that, without having Staffordshire Fire and Rescue in the wings? Suffice to say there is a beautifully classy, circus solution.
I came away feeling that this whole show is a culmination of Theresa Heskins’ decade and more as Director at the New Vic. It is the sum total of all her very best ideas and most memorable shows; all her past excitements combined; every element of entertainment, rolled into one new art form.
Which is, of course, exactly what Philip Astley was doing 250 years ago.
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