Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror, Bristol Old Vic and touring

THE Extraordinary Bodies production of Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard’s new musical circus play Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror has opened in Bristol, presenting its shocked, moved and wildly enthusiastic audience with a sensational and memorable spectacle – and enough food for thought for the rest of 2023.

The title might have hints of the various manifestations of the Circus of Horrors and the advance publicity a bit of inclusive box ticking, but BOV audiences should know better. Co-directors Billy Alwen, Claire Hodgson and Jennie Davies, working with Katy Morison’s set and costume designs, have created the atmosphere and excitement of the circus, as well as the mounting fear and dread of Germany in the 1930s. Each character is fully drawn and played with compelling skill and delicacy by the energetic cast.

The persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany under Hitler is well known, but the treatment of other minority groups who were also deemed to threaten the resurgence of the “master race” is not so often told in books, on stage or in film. Several years ago Hattie Naylor heard of circus performers being ordered to perform at Nazi rallies, and she has been researching their stories. Among her discoveries were circus networks across Europe that offered escape routes for the persecuted, frantic to avoid sterilisation programmes and concentration camps and smuggled out through Paris and on to South America.

The fruits of her research are now on stage at Bristol Old Vic, where Waldo runs his circus until 1st April before its five-venue tour of the UK. It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking, both in terms of narrative scope and physical demands. There can’t be a better place to launch the show than in Bristol, home of Diverse City and co-writer Jamie Beddard, with composer Charles Hazlewood, founder of the ParaOrchestra, down the road in Somerset and Cirque Bijou based on the Dorset coast.

Circus is all about spectacle, famous for risk-taking, danger and comedy as well as for tight-knit family companies that provide new acts from generation to generation. Running away to join the circus has been a “thing” for centuries, with its promise of acceptance of every “artiste”. The clever sets bring the audience right into the ring, sometimes as part of the audience and sometimes as performers awaiting the arrival of the follow-spot. It’s an inspired way of making you consider what you REALLY think about your “fellow performers”, on whom you might be about to depend for your safety and even your life.

Wheelchair bound Waldo (Garry Robson) is the ringmaster, and he runs his circus with an eye on maximum takings. If that means ditching Krista the long-time star (the brilliantly poignant Abbie Purvis) so be it. And the fuss with the Brownshirted Nazis will soon pass, won’t it.

But as the show goes on, so the pressure mounts and the company members are increasingly under threat from outside, where the thugs and the scientists are forming an irresistible coalition under Hitler’s evil leadership and racist ideology. The homosexuals, the gypsies, the disabled, the vertically challenged, the deaf – and of course the Jews – are all in peril.

The onstage band, led by Johnzy Johns with percussionist Harriet Riley and the amazingly versatile drummer, actor, gymnast and composer Jonny Leitch, whose routine with Tilly Lee-Kronick (playing Waldo’s son Peter) is one of the highlights of the show.

Lawrence Swaddle took over the central role of Gerhard weeks before the opening, joining Joanne Haynes as the loveable and dependable Dora, Brooklyn Melvin and Raphaella Julien as double act Mosh and Mish, Mirabelle Gremaud as Queenie (and the chilling Dr Kruger), Bristol- based circus artist Ryan Murphy as Darragh and Jack Reitman as the increasingly terrified Joseph. Performing British Sign Language interpreter Max Marchewicz made signing from the wheelchair into a balletic artform.

The show tells an important story with all the thrill and spectacle of circus, the magic transportation of theatre and the sounds of music, all ending with an anthem that both unifies and warns of complacency, but never for a moment preaches.

It’s a triumphant tribute to a forgotten community, and a powerfully persuasive nudge to look at every body as an equally important individual.

See it at Bristol until 1st April, or at Salford from 20th to 22nd April, Plymouth Theatre Royal from 26th to 29th April, MAST in Southampton from 4th to 6th May, Poole Lighthouse on 20th May or Brighton Dome on 7th June. Visit the show’s website for more information.


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