LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Friday 1 December 2023

Review: Planet Circus OMG

What makes a great circus moment? Sometimes it's a big stunt. Sometimes it's something funny and quirky. Planet Circus OMG! has both, and so does the Duo Stefaneli (pictured above).

I first saw the Duo Stefaneli when I was writing my book, Circus Mania. They were appearing in the Great British Circus in the year that it presented the last elephants to appear in a British big top. In an animal-heavy programme that included the tigers of Martin Lacey Sr, they formed the main acrobatic act, performing daring hangs from a trapeze bar beneath a hovering flying saucer.

In the book, I wrote: "It's hard to imagine a more thrilling form of entertainment than Stefan and Neli deliver."

So it was good to see them back with their flying saucer at Planet Circus this year.

The act seemed higher in the truly towering Planet Circus big top and much better lit, too, with lasers flickering around their alien-themed act.

For me, though, the true highlight of the show was their other act, a quick change routine in which the couple repeatedly changed outfits while momentarily concealed in a raised fabric tube.

Circus acts go in and out of fashion, and quick change seemed to be the flavour of the season on the circus scene in 2023. There were similar acts at Big Kid Circus and Santus Circus this year. The one at Santus was particularly well thought out, being staged as a couple choosing their outfits for a night out.

But the Duo Stefaneli gave it a special charm, thanks to infectious electro-Latin dance music and the couple's natural charisma. 

The climax saw Stefan tip an umbrella full of golden glitter over Neli's head. She twirled once in the sparkling downpour and was changed into a new dress before our eyes - a truly amazing illusion! 

If I were them, I would do more of that sort of comedy magic. Not only is it safer than dangling by an ankle and wrist from a flying saucer, but I would say it is a much more engaging, entertaining and memorable act.

Another of the show's most engaging moments was Lukinha the Clown using a balloon 'bow' to fire an invisible arrow at a balloon held above the head of a volunteer from the audience. With everyone watching Lukinha, only the keenest eyed spectator would have noticed German Wheel performer Krisztian lurking in the shadows off stage and reaching out with a pin on the end of a long pole to burst the target balloon at the right moment!

Speaking of little things that make a big impact, Jenny Glowacki performed an energetic cloud swing routine to a Celtic rock soundtrack. Cloud swing is another of those in fashion acts that every circus seemed to have this year, and it's a stirring act in its own right. What set Jenny's apart, was her spontaneous shouts of "Whoo!" conveying her unbridled exuberance at swinging through the air. She looked and sounded as excited as a kid on a park swing - and that level of energy was infectious.

The wild look on her face when she finally descended to the ground was a picture.

An element of personality and engagement with the audience is often missing from circus acts. We may marvel at the feats performed, but we seldom come away remembering the performer as a person. It's why circus has very few star names, individuals who would draw an audience in their own right. Throughout history there has been no more than a handful, and they tend to be clowns, such as Charlie Cairoli, or the present day's Danny Adams, who has been the main draw in the pantomime at the Newcastle Theatre Royal for the past ten years.

Performers like Jenny Glowacki and the Duo Stefanali bring a little bit more personality to their routines than most, and I wish more performers would.

A performer who combined the big with the quirky was juggler Iran. Juggling hoops and clubs is one thing, but watching a man hurling three heavy car tyres high into the air is truly the sort of unusual sight that you go to a circus to see.

Not content with that, he then lay down while a monster truck with blaring horns and headlights was driven over his chest. Now that is circus!

The truck was a star in its own right. When I first saw the Duo Stefaneli at the Great British Circus, you could have your photo taken with an elephant during the interval. At Planet Circus, interval photos were with the big red truck.

Top of the bill was a Globe of Death - an act that I feel has been in fashion a few seasons too long. The first time I ever saw one, it was impressive. But every circus seems to drag one out at the end of the night these days. Even with five illuminated bikes buzzing around inside the spherical cage, like a bunch of angry trapped wasps, as we had here, I find it a bit done to death, and even tiresome.

Luckily, the huge height of the Planet Circus tent allows them to go further with a finale of motorbikes racing into the tent, hitting a ramp and flying over the globe, before landing somewhere beyond the ring doors. It's a truly heart-stopping stunt to witness at an indoor show and one that I think is only being done elsewhere at Circus Extreme (read my review here) as few circuses have a tall enough tent to accommodate it. 

The flying bikes justify the OMG! in the title, although I would prefer them to just have the stunt bikes and not the globe riders. Maybe they could do other things in the show, like jumping through a fiery hoop or leaping over the monster truck. Or maybe a line of them running over Iran.

The bits I will remember, though, are the Duo Stefaneli's quick change routine, Lukinha's balloon bow and arrow and Jenny Glowacki's "Whoo!"s on the cloud swing. 

Planet Circus OMG! will be presenting its Christmas Spectacular at the Lincolnshire Showground, 12 December to 2 January. For more info click here.


Thursday 30 November 2023

Review: The Greatest Show On Earth, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, 2023

The biggest circus story of 2023 was the return of The Greatest Show on Earth. It's a show with 150 years of history behind it. The name is known throughout the world, evoking huge tents with three rings in a golden age of entertainment. Even the names of the men behind it - the Ringling Brothers and PT Barnum - now immortalised on film as The Greatest Showman - are legendary.

But history can also be baggage, anchoring a name or concept in the past while the world changes and fashion moves on. By the 2010s, the Ringling show was on the wrong side of history. The elephant parade that was part of its brand belonged to a time when such things were uncontroversial. By 2016 they were the cause of protest, lawsuits and legislation that made them nonviable in the world of commercial entertainment.

Ringling ditched the elephants but also lost its audience and closed the following year, after 146 years on the road.

Could it come back, after a six year break, with a new all-human look and reclaim its throne as the Greatest Show on Earth?

For me, as a British observer, the show's challenge was filling arenas that seat 20,000 people. Not just filling all those seats, but filling a vast performance space more suited to sports events.

In Europe, we're accustomed to the intimacy of the big top. A circus tent that folds snugly around its spotlit ring is a magical place in its own right. Part of the appeal is the closeness of the action. In the front row, the trapeze artists swing over our heads. The clowns are close enough to squirt us with water. We can see the trembling of a straining muscle and the sweat on a performer's brow. Can a man balancing on a rola-rola be as involving when he's a distant stick figure?

I've watched the Ringling show several times on YouTube videos shot from various positions in the arena and it's clear that some seats feel a long way from the action. If you're at one end of the arena, a hoop jumping act at the far end is hard to even see, let alone feel the physicality in the way that you would if it was happening just feet from you.

At the same time, though, arena seating can offer a new perspective. In the highest seats - and the cheapest, perhaps? - you can sit above the high wire artists and look down on them, instead of looking up at them. You can sit at the level of the flying trapeze platforms and watch the flyers swoop down away from you into the well of the arena. It's a refreshingly different angle and might it even convey a greater sense of height than viewing such acts from the ground?

Ringling, in any case, was staging shows in three-ring tents this size 100 years ago, and moved into arenas in the 1950s, so they (or Feld Entertainment, to credit the current operators) know how to work the space. 

At the start of the show, an impressive number of performers run out to fill the arena floor. 75 of them, although with all the colour and movement it looks like more. Lauren Irving belts out the stirring and catchy theme song, 'Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth' and a blaze of swirling lighting effects quickly whips a substantially full auditorium into a celebratory atmosphere.

The centrepiece of the arena is a raised ring-cum-stage. Shaped like an upturned bowl, it has sloping sides that form a ramp for access and continuously changes colour while displaying moving patterns across all its surfaces. It also has a moving track within its top, allowing some props and performers to revolve while others stand still, and a central disc that can be raised on hydraulic lifts to put the spotlight on a rola-rola or balancing act.

A British circus like Gandeys or Circus Extreme really needs to get one of these illuminated stages, which would look great within a big top, and perhaps even better than it does in an arena.

There are additional raised square stages at each end of the building, which give patrons in the end seats a close-up view of particular acts, such as a very strong skipping act, with several people standing on each others' shoulders while they jump the rope.

The area around the stages is laid out like a skate park that is used to great effect by a team of stunt cyclists, who swarm about, drawing our eye this way and that across the huge space, and turn impressive somersaults as they fly off the scattered ramps.

Comedy is provided by Equivokee, a trio from Ukraine. I'm not going to complain about the lack of red noses and clown make-up, although some traditionalists have. For me, slapstick is about more than make-up, as Laurel and Hardy proved a century ago. The funniest thing on UK TV at the moment is a children's programme called Danny and Mick which stars Danny Adams, Mick Potts and Clive Webb - the stars of Cirque du Hilarious. They dress as normal people while doing all the old clown routines like the wallpaper routine, and make them funnier than ever.

I can't say that Equivokee made much of an impression on me, but I think that was less their fault than the size of the arena. Clowning works best close up when you can see the facial expressions and the twinkle in an eye, and when the jesters are engaging directly with - or picking on! - the audience. At a distance, the humour evaporates within too much space.

Luckily, the Greatest Show on Earth fields plenty of 'big' acts that make good use of the space and height available.

A triangular high wire act by the Lopez Family is apparently a world first. It's such a simple and visually impressive concept that it's a wonder no one has thought of it before. Instead of performers crossing a single wire, there are performers simultaneously doing different things on three wires arranged in a triangle.

It's an act that would fit neatly above the ring of a big top, and which a UK circus should import, although it comes with additional challenges. According to Maria Lopez, the walkers have to cope with vibrations coming from the other wires.

Another big act that perfectly fits the space, and another update on an old theme, is a criss-crossing flying trapeze routine by the Flying Caceres. With two sets of performers crossing paths it literally adds another dimension - depth, towards us and away from us - to an act that usually only draws our eye from side to side.

The Nevas Troupe perform side-by-side on a Double Wheel of Destiny (a pair of what used to be called the Wheel of Death - because people have died performing it). They make impressive leaps atop the spinning contraptions and the release of fireworks adds to the thrills. One performer makes a daring leap between the two wheels and back again. That is the only moment, though, that two wheels is better than one. I found myself watching only one as it was difficult to watch two at the same time, and that made having two a little pointless. That one leap between them aside, I wonder if it would be better to separate the wheels and have one at each end of the arena, so that everyone would get a better view of at least one of them, rather than confining the pair to one end.

Speaking of world firsts, Wesley Williams rides the world's tallest unicycle as confirmed in the Guinness World of Records. The 34-foot-tall contraption, which is the equivalent of sitting astride a three-storey-tall ladder that isn't resting against anything (and is in fact balanced on a wheel!) puts his head right up among the lights in the roof.

It's true that he doesn't ride it very far, just back and forth across the width of the arena. Imagine if he could do a lap of honour around the whole building! He also wears a visible safety wire, but who can blame him?

But what about the absence of animals, which has offended some old school fans? Did I miss the parade of rubber mules that were Ringling's trademark? No, I didn't.

In the past, I have championed animals in the big top, and I enjoyed seeing what will probably be the last elephants and big cats to appear in a British circus. But that was a decade ago. The UK circus has almost entirely moved on from animals and, dare I whisper it among circus fans, it's better for it.

When I began reporting on the circus scene, the industry was up to its neck in the animal issue. There were pickets at the gates and negative press. Even the circuses without animals were compelled to talk about them. The image of the big top was so bad that many people hated circuses without ever seeing one. The ageing proprietors were embattled and embittered. It was no atmosphere in which to stage bright, happy family entertainment. The business was being sucked down like a man dying in quicksand.

Today, with the animals almost entirely gone, and no one even talking about them anymore, the circus feels like it has been reborn. The shows have a clean, modern aesthetic, with stages and floored seating replacing sawdust and mud. The negative image has evaporated, and audiences bring their kids without having to worry about ethics. The atmosphere in the shows and among a new generation of show-runners is invigorated and forward looking. The scene feels like it's thriving.

The new Ringling show feels like that, too, and maybe enough time has passed for it to find a new audience without alienating its old one.

And yet, Ringling hasn't copied Cirque du Soleil, the first big show to pioneer the idea of a circus without animals. The Greatest Show on Earth has not been produced in the style of 'new circus' - a format that once, and perhaps still does, sat apart from the big top kind, with both parties disliking each other in equal measure.

Ringling has not switched camps. There is no story line here, no theme, no message, no attempt to dress circus up as art. It is a traditional circus - perhaps we could say New Traditional - in the sense of providing colourful spectacle and uncomplicated family fun. It's only aim is to entertain, and it does so in abundance.

Although the acts aren't linked, they flow effortlessly from one to the next and the feel-good spirit will send you home singing "Welcome to the Greatest Show on earth!" Reader, I've been singing it all week!

The finale is 'human rocket' Skyler Miser. It's a simple act, but one guaranteed to put a smile on the face. As Skyler steps into her cannon, the whole arena chants the countdown: "Ten, nine, eight..." I even chanted it aloud at home: "Five, four, three..."

Boom! Like the immortal spirit of the circus, Skyler flies the length of the arena and lands on an inflatable crash pad.

Irving signs off with the company's slogan, which has become the salutation of circus worldwide: "May all your days be..." But wait! Instead of saying, "circus days," she says, "may all your days be Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey days!"

Has the image of circus become so tarnished in America that the Felds won't even utter the C-word? The word is conspicuously absent from the description of the show on their website.

This is a circus, however, and one that deserves to put the shine back on the word. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in 2023 it is currently the Greatest Circus on Earth.

For tour dates and tickets, click here.



Tuesday 28 November 2023

Big Crowds for Big Kid Circus

A great shot of a big crowd piling into the Big Kid Circus' big top on the last stop of their season in Glasgow, beneath a sunny autumnal sky.


The Great Circus of Europe in Al Ain

An enchanting shot of Gandeys Circus' overseas unit The Great Circus of Europe in Al Ain in the Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, Gandeys is presenting the circus-on-ice-show Snowstorm 3 over Christmas.


Friday 22 September 2023

Cirque du Soleil to set up home in London

Is London about to get a permanent circus building?

Canadian circus giant Cirque du Soleil is in the process of making the capital’s Saville Theatre its UK base.

The theatre, which was turned into a cinema in 1970 has been bought by Yoo Capital which has teamed up with Soleil to restore the 110,000 sq ft, grade II-listed building.

Eric Grilly, president of resident and affiliate show divisions at Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, said “We see a unique opportunity to bring back live entertainment to a beloved venue with fresh content and new ideas.”

Lloyd Lee, managing partner at Yoo Capital, said, “Yoo Capital is thrilled to have the opportunity to restore the theatre’s original purpose as a live performance space in partnership with the world’s most reputable live performers, Cirque du Soleil, who have chosen to explore the potential for the Saville to be their first ever permanent experience in London.”

Before circuses travelled in big tops, they were staged in temporary or permanent buildings. The grandest was Astley's Amphitheatre. Known throughout upmarket society simply as Astley's, the landmark venue was mentioned in novels by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

The last circus building still in use for its original purpose is the Yarmouth Hippodrome. But London may be about to get a new one.


Wednesday 20 September 2023

Pablo Fanque, Britain's first Black circus proprietor, gets blue plaque in Leeds

There aren't many blue plaques dedicated to circus performers, but there are now at least three devoted to Britain's - and probably the world's - first Black circus owner, Pablo Fanque.
One is on the wall of the John Lewis store in Norwich, close to where Fanque (real name William Darby) was born in 1810. A second is at Sheffield's Castlegate.
The latest plaque has been unveiled on a Leeds shopping centre close to where Fanque was buried in 1871.
Fanque's wife Susannah was killed in Leeds when an amphitheatre owned by him collapsed in 1848. Although Fanque later remarried, it was his final wish to be buried alongside her.

The plaque was unveiled on 16 September by Chris Barltrop dressed as Philip Astley, assisted by Shawn Ashworth dressed as Fanque and Deborah Sanderson, from the Urban Angels aerial group, dressed as Fanque's wife, Susannah.
Speeches were given by Jane Taylor, Chair of the Leeds Civic Trust, and circus historian Dr Steve Ward, who played a large part in getting Fanque honoured.
The ceremony was witnessed by 100 onlookers plus BBC and ITV local news crews.
Later in the afternoon, Barltrop performed his play Audacious Mr Astley at the nearby City Varieties Theatre.
The real life Astley had introduced circus to Leeds with open-air performances there in 1773.
For more information on the story of Pablo Fanque, click here.


Tuesday 6 June 2023

Laurel and Chaplin: The Feud, Preview

A promo video has dropped for Laurel & Chaplin: The Feud, and what a hoot it looks, combining classic slapstick routines with an intriguing true story.

Long before Laurel and Hardy, Stan Laurel worked with another comedy giant, Charlie Chaplin. They toured America together for three years and shared a room on the road.

Then, after Chaplin was talent-spotted by Keystone Studios and catapulted to silver screen fame, they never spoke to each other again.

To find out what happened, catch Laurel & Chaplin: The Feud at London's Cambridge Theatre on Monday nights from 24 July to 28 August and Blackpool Winter Gardens from 30 August to 2 September.


Monday 15 May 2023

Vulcana by Rebecca F. John - The Story of a Victorian Strongwoman

If you're looking for some summer reading, then this could be the book for you. 

Miriam Kate Williams, better known as Vulcana, was a Welsh strongwoman who toured the Victorian music halls with William Hedley Roberts, better known as Atlas, as Vulcana and Atlas.

They billed themselves as brother and sister although they were actually lovers and Roberts was married to another woman.

Their true story has now been turned into an enthralling atmospheric novel by award-winning short story writer and Costa-nominated novelist Rebecca F. John.

Find out more on Amazon, here.

Friday 12 May 2023

Why did Stan Laurel hate Charlie Chaplin? A new show, Laurel and Chaplin - the Feud, will reveal all!


Some shows just have a fantastic premise and Laurel & Chaplin - the Feud sounds like it's going to be the must-have ticket of this summer.

Mixing a dramatic play with slapstick comedy and circus skills, the show tells the true but little-known story of how two of the big screen's greatest funny men - Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin - began their career as roommates, touring the music halls with showman Fred Karno... until something went wrong.

Created by Jon Conway and starring his son Jordan Conway as Chaplin, and Matt Knight as Laurel, the show's all-action routines were honed during 200 performances at Butlins Holiday Resorts as the Crazy Comedy Company, before an acclaimed appearance on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Catch the show at London's Cambridge Theatre from 24 July to 28 August, and at Blackpool Winter Gardens from 29 August to 2 September.

For more info and bookings, click here.

Saturday 6 May 2023

Is this the best circus act in the UK today?

Alex the Fireman Photo credit: Bina Fellowes Photography

Last year, Circus Fantasia boasted of having the only human cannonball in the UK that season. This year, they have one of the most entertaining acts I have ever seen in a circus ring: Alex the Fireman.

His antics on a huge revolving ladder have everything you could want from the big top in a single act. Slapstick comedy, hair-raising, death-defying acrobatics, fire, water pistols and enough personality to have everyone in the audience joining in with pantomime-style shouting.

Alexandru Lupu is not a newcomer. He's done the same act on other circuses including Zippos and Paulos (where the above picture was taken). But if you haven't seen it, this is one act worth making a special trip to Circus Fantasia to see. And if you have seen him before, you'll want to see him again, because this is an act that does not get old.

The fact that Fantasia retains a live band when most circuses use recorded music definitely adds to the effect.

Tip: book a side view seat for the best view of Alex spinning backwards on his ladder.