Astley’s Astounding Adventures review – the first circus reimagined

New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
An action-packed production tells the story of the local man who invented big-top entertainment 250 years ago

Circus is hopefulness in action. Objects fly, people tumble; dangers are defied, catastrophes circumvented; in a maelstrom of movement, equilibrium is somehow, if only just, maintained. This is the legacy of Philip Astley (1742-1814), carpenter’s son, equestrian extraordinaire, decorated veteran and, 250 years ago, instigator of that 42ft diameter of infinite possibilities, the circus ring.

Director Theresa Heskins celebrates this anniversary in the town of Astley’s birth by mounting a production that playfully co-opts the imaginations of her audiences to present impossible-seeming, circus-style thrills and spills. Here we “see” a daredevil rider perform acrobatics on a galloping horse (image evoked by a row of wooden trestles and actors with ladies’ fans); a trick pony performs a mind-reading act(thanks to audience member Carl); Astley himself, mounted on a moving steed, shoot apples with his pistols (image evoked by... but, why spoil the surprise?).

Not everything is imaginary. Circus performers, musicians and actors in the 18-strong team of players deliver real tumbling, juggling and clowning. More than skilful, this is also dramatically effective, especially in the falling-in-love duet between Nicholas Richardson’s Astley and Danielle Bird (as Patty Jones), a daringly executed, deeply moving aerial act performed between two long red silks flowing from the flies (co-direction and expert circus choreography by Vicki Amedume).

The only disappointment of the evening is writer Frazer Flintham’s paint-by-numbers storyline(goal-obstacle-success-conflict-disaster-rescue) . Otherwise, this circus tribute is a joyous expression of hopes fulfilled.

• At the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until 28 July


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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