Review: The Moscow State Circus, by Anna Morell

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The magnificent Moscow State Circus is coming to Jacksons Field, Rochester next month. Anna Morell reviewed it last year in Detling.

Along with the Chinese State Circus, the Moscow State Circus sits a ring above other UK touring circuses for luxe and production values. The Moscow’s big top is climate-conditioned, carpeted, has plush velvet seats and a fully licensed bar (serving, of course, a black Russian if you fancy) as well as the usual hot dogs, burgers, slushies, popcorn and candy floss (and £2.50 for a stick three times the size of your head is not bad). The toilets are cleaner than those of most restaurants (glass decanters of soap! Fully flushing! Powerful air dryers!) and you can take home one of several sets of matryoshka dolls as well as a ubiquitous LED spinny stick.

This is a touring circus putting all this on. A circus which pops up for two days here, or a week there. It pops up, scrubs up, and behaves better than many a permanent building.

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And it really knows how to put on a show. Not just a gasp at this, wonder at that show – an acted-out, thematic story structured around some of the best circus showmanship in the business. This current tour sees it telling the tale of the seven wishes, or ‘Siem Zhelaniy’ in Russian. A girl is given seven flowers, and each grants her a wish. And so she petulantly burns through wishes for hula hoops, gingerbread, giant popcorn and bubbles, each wish manifesting as stunning circus performances.

It’s theatre. The story is told by the girl (a hula hooper and acrobat), and two clowns – one, an elderly professor with an air of Mork and Mindy and Good Will Hunting era Robin Williams about him, and the other, Russia’s answer to Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall were she a mime, as a grumpy cleaner. Clowns are normally the filler in a circus, padding out time between equipment changes, but these ones are properly hilarious. The cleaner is an impressive hula hooper, throwing some incredibly strenuous poses effortlessly, and the professor is a heck of a trampoline tumbler, able to spring from trampoline bed to diving board repeatedly with the seamlessness of watching a film of a diver played in reverse.

The aerialist, the Red Lady, does most things suspended backwards and upside down from one arm while clutching a concertina. Three women combine contortion and trapeze moves inside giant bubbles which drift apart in mid-air held together seemingly by will and incredible core strength. A very high wire act lunges and jumps constantly en pointe. A low wire act gambols along the rope with the speed and dynamism of a hurdler (albeit a hurdler dressed for flamenco). She fumbles a couple of tumbles, and it’s a reminder that this ridiculous way to make a living – this daily, death-defying stuntery – is nowhere near as easy as they make it look. It also keeps the audience’s collective heart in its mouth for the rest of the show.

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There are also rollerskaters who do things hanging from their necks that need to be seen to be believed. More tumblers treat a thin plank of wood as a trampoline, triple flipping high in the air. Others throw themselves off a swing, rotating like sycamore leaves, halfway to the height of the big top, to slide down a sheet to the ground. This swinging and sheet sliding is a Russian speciality, and they look like they genuinely relish it. As does the ten-strong acrobatic troupe of modern Pierrot-esque clowns with their nod to French circus, and… so many revolutions – jumping onto see-saws, catapulting each other onto crashmats and into chairs 20 feet up in the air on poles; onto the shoulders of someone with… someone already on their shoulders. It’s eyes behind hands territory, so they do it on five feet-high stilts and then a pogo stick, just to up the ante. It’s terrifying.

And then there is only one wish left… and our heroine chooses to use it to heal an injured man who floats around the ring with his new love. And the lovely moral of this breathtaking story is: ‘it’s who you are that counts, not what you have’. Although I wish, oh I wish, they come back again soon.

The Moscow State Circus is at Jacksons Field, Rochester from 12 to 16 October 2016.

Images: Paul Barker